On Mothers, Daughters, and “The Truth”: A Conversation with Juliette Binoche




IN THE 30-PLUS YEARS since her star turn as Tereza, playing a plucky ingénue opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Juliette Binoche has long proven levity sans gravity artistically impossible. She is doe eyes in stilettos, willowy swagger, ebullience with a shadowy edge. At 56, a time when so many leading names are swallowed into matronly oblivion, the French actress’s roster of roles has only gotten richer (and sexier) — from witchy space scientist in Claire Denis’s High Life to adulterous TV star in Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction.

In The Truth Hirokazu Kore-eda’s newest feature — Binoche plays Lumir, the daughter of aging screen diva Fabienne “FabiDangeville (Catherine Deneuve). The meta meter is high, given that Deneuve, 76, is arguably Binoche’s most obvious cinematic predecessor. Visiting Fabi’s Parisian home with husband Hank (a jocular, if homely sweatered Ethan Hawke) and their young, New York–raised daughter in tow, Lumir attempts to address a lifetime of tension with her mother, their discord only heightened by the recent publication of Fabienne’s memoir, eponymously (and ironically) titled The Truth.

Part dramedy, part pathos-laden family portrait, Kore-eda’s first foray into French cinema can, at times, feel tonally asynchronous: are we to laugh when Fabi starts flirting with her son-in-law over his sobriety-shattering glass of wine or wince at her audacity? That said, the chance to see Deneuve and Binoche onscreen at the same time, and for the first time, is well worth the affective skids. The film seems to ask to what extent can Lumir — or any daughter — really know her mother? And to what extent can we, who have followed Binoche’s and Deneuve’s long and varied careers, fully appreciate the boon (and burden) of their respective legacies?

Marooned in Paris for the film’s New York premiere (merci, coronavirus), Binoche was able to get on the phone to discuss her most recent film. She often shifted from third to second and first person when discussing her latest role, as though Lumir’s inner life were also her own. Sprinkling “somehow” throughout her ruminations, the Oscar and César winner waxed as wondrous as wise. The following is an excerpt from our conversation in early March.

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EILEEN G’SELL: As Lumir, you play a daughter to a very difficult, neglectful mother. You come across as indignant, but not spiteful — how did you balance these competing emotions?

JULIETTE BINOCHE: No matter who you play, you always go back to the relationships you had with your mother and father, the structure of childhood, the first emotions that are the basics. Lumir is coming back to her mother in order to try and resolve something, because that’s how we deal with it. When you are away from the conflict or the relationship, you want to make progress, you want to do something about the needs you have that were not fulfilled as a child — but still stay in you. The way to deal with it is to fight, because it calms the need down somehow. It’s coming out of Lumir without her wanting to. It’s a kind of behavior that is beyond her control. It’s sad in a way, because she can see that her behavior is not what she wishes. But she has to be truthful to herself.

There are two key scenes in the film — one, between Lumir and Fabienne at the dinner table when her mother is being dismissive toward her daughter’s husband Hank. I feel betrayed, I feel brutalized. And that’s when I want to attack my mother.

There’s a protectiveness to her. 

I get aggressive because it is a way to protect my husband, to protect my heart. In Kore-eda’s eyes, I was coming back to the house to show my mother that I had succeeded in my personal life: I have a husband, I have a child. And Fabienne was not able to keep a husband. And, of course, we eventually see that it’s not as ideal as Lumir presents, because her husband isn’t working very much and is somehow an alcoholic. We get different kinds of layers — it’s not all perfect, or all dark, but a combination. For each family and each human being, there are places that need to be improved or transformed.

The other key scene is when I’m feeling that I’m going to be closer to my mother talking about the past. But I see my mother will never change because she is preoccupied most about her acting. She’s very narcissistic. But I think when I see my mother in need and getting older, there’s probably a consciousness of time passing. I just need to get away from my need — to not feel in the need of a mother till the end of my life. That’s the story I told myself as I was playing Lumir.

Lumir seems to forgive her mother in a way once she learns how vulnerable she is — that she isn’t entirely strong.

Exactly. 

Do you think that this strength reflects a generational difference? The necessity for women in the past to be impervious to vulnerability in order to achieve certain heights?

Definitely. I can see it for myself, when I see my mother losing the strength that she used to have, because of age. When Lumir sees her mother getting jealous of the younger generation — someone so young she could be her granddaughter — she feels for her mother. I think that Lumir knows that, in a conflict with her mother, somehow, it cannot go further. My character has to get on another level — in order to get in touch with her mother and in order to get closer to her mother. Because she somehow knows her mother will never change.

Lumir is the one who changes in the film.

Yes. She decides that being closer to her mother is more important than being right, more important than feeling that she can be cured of the needs she had as a little girl, that she never had fulfilled.

You often play characters who are devoted mothers but equally committed to their professional lives. Is that something that you consciously gravitate toward?

No. When I read a script, first of all, I want to know who’s directing. The director is key to a project, of course. If there’s a transformation in the story that is interesting to follow, it can be related to the theme of the film. I think it is this transformation that is the most exciting. It allows us to follow as an audience — to change with the character. To get inside the story, to get inside of them. That I find more fascinating, or more important, to play in any story.

In so many of your films, you combine a kind of vulnerability with a formidable strength. Even in Claire Denis’s High Life, where you play a femme fatale, you break down at times. Is that something you feel is missing in certain roles for women?

To show vulnerability allows humanity. It’s important for viewers to relate to characters. If you only show strength, no one believes it. Because you know underneath there are questions. It’s not so simple.

What was it like playing opposite Catherine Deneuve? It’s hard to believe it was the first time the two of you shared a screen.

I asked myself, at the beginning of the shoot, how I was going to be close to her — how it was possible to play mother and daughter, because Catherine is not easy to reach. She’s not someone, for example, who would allow you to say “tu,” which is the closest form of address in French. So I said to her, “I think we should say ‘tu,’ to each other.” She looked at me and didn’t answer. And so I continued saying “tu” to her, but she continued saying “vous”! And I ignored that. I said, “Never mind.” I had to play her daughter, so I put my ego aside and kept saying “tu.” I just thought I would see what happened. But then, after a while, she said “tu” to me because she felt comfortable saying it.

There was also another door that I found to get close to her. At the time, she smoked a lot. I’ve been a smoker sometimes in films, but I’m not a real smoker. I go back to smoking when I have to smoke in a film. I thought, “Okay, she’s smoking. I’m playing her daughter. I will smoke with her! We can share the same ashtray, we can share the same light, I can offer her a cigarette, and there will be some kind of physical connection.”

And then rehearsing that dinner scene, I said, “Catherine, do you mind giving me a cigarette?” And she said, “No.” And I said to her, “But I will give it back to you.” And she said, “No, you won’t give it back to me. You’ll smoke the whole thing.” And I said, “Well, then I’ll give you a whole pack in the days coming.” And she didn’t answer, so I thought, “Oh, wow. She’s a tough cookie.” But then she threw me a cigarette across the table! And I took it and thought, “Wow! I won this battle. I’m so happy.” So I lit the cigarette, and Catherine was smoking, and I was smoking, everybody was wrapped in smoke. The director had to open the window.

But that was the game. I tried to find doors to feel close to her, so that we would have a complicity that was special. I had to invent ways. I wanted to create roads between us. Catherine — I love her. She can be very generous and was very caring with me, because my father was very sick at the time. It touched me a lot.

You both have such intensity in dialogue with each other, especially with your eyes. But I noticed that Deneuve channels that intensity in a more subdued way, whereas you physically move and shift more. You’re both iconic actors, but so different.

In their mother-daughter relationship, there’s complicity but so much conflict. So I knew I had to provoke her once in a while. The daughter is in need, but Fabienne’s character doesn’t want to deal with guilt, doesn’t want to deal with the past, doesn’t want to deal with things that are hurtful. So I had to push her into emotions that she wanted to avoid as a character. I remember, in that dinner scene when she’s mean to my husband, once I provoked her, and at the end of the take, Catherine said to me, “You’re such a snake!” She was so surprised. [Laughs.] She didn’t expect that I’d be so provocative.

It was interesting. It was not, somehow, written that way. Kore-eda said to us in the beginning, “This is a comedy.” But, of course, when I read the script, I knew it could not just be a comedy with a mother-daughter relationship, especially if the mother did not take care of the child. That’s very painful. So the next day, when he was editing the dailies, Kore-eda came to me and thanked me. He said, “You gave depth to this scene, because it cannot only be comedy.” He was cautious initially with our acting, trying to act with me, moving [around the set] and all. But after that scene, he stopped moving around [and stayed behind the camera]. He let me do what I felt was right for the situation. He let us go with what we felt.

The Truth offers a pan-generational array of French female actors. With you, Deneuve, and Ludivine Sagnier, the film orbits themes of legacy. Which actresses — older or younger — have you admired, or do you admire today? And what do they all share?

I’ve always admired Gena Rowlands. In her films by Cassavetes, she’s quite amazing. And I’ve always loved Liv Ullmann. And Anna Magnani. They are the three actresses I admire the most. They have a special relationship with themselves, inside. They have a need to be truthful both inside and out. They’re not makers. They’re not trying to make anything. They’re being. And that touches me.

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The Truth will be released in theaters and streaming on Friday, July 3.

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Eileen G’Sell is a poet and culture critic focusing on film, art, and visual culture. Her latest book is Life After Rugby (2018).

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Featured image: “Juliette Binoche au festival du film de Cabourg” by Georges Biard is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

 

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