LOS ANGELES — Over the course of 41 years and nearly 70 films, the gold standard for cinematic expression and performances that are both formidable and subtly shaded, Juliette Binoche has figured out a few things.
One said: “Do your own thing. Because you can’t trust directors.”
Two: Her favorite movie actor was the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and they once spent four hours over dinner discussing “oh, everything.” Life.”
Three: He doesn’t like being told to back off, even — perhaps especially — by filmmakers he admires. Binoche’s last film, the visually absurd period piece “The Taste of Things,” was written and directed by Vietnamese-French writer-director Trân Anh Hùng; His works include a similarly delightful number, “The Scent of a Green Papaya.”
“After a few takes, he came up to me and said: ‘Juliette, can you be more neutral this time?’” Binoche recalls. And I said, ‘What do you mean, neutral?’ I said.” He says these words decisively, in a tone of voice that can only be described as withering detachment.
In “The Taste of Things,” which has been selected as France’s entry in the international feature film category at the upcoming Academy Awards, Binoche, 59, plays cook Eugénie, the longtime kitchen cook and sometimes romantic partner of a famous chef. They retired to the country together. Based on the 1920 novel translated into English as “The Passionate Epicure”, the story begins in 1885, when Eugénie’s health gradually deteriorates and chef Dodin launches a new secret marriage proposal campaign. Dodin is played by Benoît Magimel.
The film marked the first time Binoche and Magimel worked together since 1999’s “Children of the Century.” Their off-screen partnership, which lasted several years, produced a daughter named Hana. Binoche during a big, grazing lunch at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills (filet mignon, polenta, grilled broccoli, et al.) “They don’t express what they feel. This is terrible. “This is burying yourself before you die.”
The following has been edited for clarity and length.
Question: You shot “The Taste of Things” in spring 2022. Does it seem like so long ago?
A: “You know, not really. Time works differently on a film whose production is intense. The experience is still written within you. What we experienced is still very vivid because we had to be there at all times. So it stays inside you. Not just passing; digging.
I had watched most of Trân’s previous films, including “Infinity,” and I thought he moved away from emotion a bit in “Infinity.” With “The Taste of Things,” I wanted to give it as much emotion as I needed. He came up to me several times after the shoot and said: “Juliette, can you be more impartial?” And I said, “What do you mean, impartial?” I said. I am a person, I must feel, I must live! I can’t stop myself from pleasing you intellectually. For this reason. I think I was smart at that moment. (smiles) Later I asked Trân why he wanted me to be neutral in that scene. She said she was afraid of too much emotion. But after I said “no, I can’t do that” we did another take and he tapped me and said: “You know what? This is good” (laughs).
Q: No matter who you play, I can rarely feel a single emotion in any of your on-screen work.
A: I guess that’s preferable, right? It’s important to understand the origins of everything and somehow connect that to the surface of what you do and who you play. This is why comedies are so difficult. I generally hate comedies because there is often exaggeration and that doesn’t work for me.
As human beings, we carry everything with us at all times, and it all comes out when you’re shooting. This is its magic. You can’t or won’t force him to be a certain way. He needs to appear on camera in a way you don’t expect.
Question: Do you remember the first time you watched a movie as a kid where an actor changed your life forever?
A: Yes. I was six or seven years old and had watched Charlie Chaplin’s short films. Then, when I was nine, I went with my sister to visit Charlie Chaplin in Switzerland. My father was a friend of one of his daughters, Victoria.
Q: So if the first person you saw on screen was Buster Keaton instead, I wonder if, years later, you would tell your “Taste of Things” director that yes, okay, neutrality is good.
A: Who knows? (Laughs). As players, we all have to be transparent. To allow things to emerge. This is not neutral. This is a kind of waiver. You surrender to something and you allow something to happen so it naturally comes out of you.
Q: The kitchen in “The Taste of Things” is like a dream kitchen, with its wood fire and beautiful copper pots; It’s designed to make 21st-century audiences want to immediately travel back to the provincial France of the late 19th century.
A: I know! A year and a half ago I bought a farm in Saint-Martin-de-Seignanx (near the Spanish border), two kilometers from my grandmother’s house. I had some difficult memories there; My parents’ separation is a little rough at times. But gathering there will be good for all of us, my cousins, everyone. It’s nice to have a place for the family. My goal is to create a sort of “Taste of Joy” kitchen when the farmhouse is finished.
Question: The first scene or scenes of food preparation that we see in the movie; It takes about 40 minutes and is a whirlwind of activity, from picking vegetables at sunrise to unloading them, none of it ostentatious. fish instead of omelette. By the way, which fish did you put your hand into in that scene?
A: Shield. Also English shield I guess. Wait, I’ll tell you. (Checks French to English translation on phone). Flounder? Don’t you say “shield” in English?
Q: I’m afraid I’m not the person to ask! But I know it’s “flounder” which doesn’t sound that good. What are you actually frying in the pan in that scene?
A: Testicles! This was the first day we shot my first scene. We had three fish to use if we needed them. I was nervous! I’ve never done this. But it was no problem, we did it in the first take. The testicles were for the omelette. (Pause) I haven’t tried it.
Question: Can we talk a little about working with Benoît in the film?
A: Yes, definitely. We saw each other occasionally (years after we broke up) because we have a daughter together. But we never had a real conversation about the past and what was going on. Then suddenly we started spending time working together. I was very impressed by this. And I think he was too.
I think distance creates the need to express emotions. So I used Trân’s words (in the “Taste of Things” script) to express my feelings for Benoît. The medium became a kind of gift for him, a bridge, and I was able to tell him everything: I love you no matter what, I care about you, life goes on, we have a wonderful child, I loved you then, and I love you in a different way now. And so it is.
For our daughter, this was like opening a door. He doesn’t remember us being together, so seeing his parents express things between them was kind of a healing moment.
Question: How would you describe Benoît’s approach to acting compared to yours?
A: He loves the freedom the headset gives him. I give him the lines. He likes it. He didn’t need it for shorter scenes. He used this for monologues. I adapted to his needs and it didn’t bother me. We both love going on adventures to see what happens in the reshoot. I consider it a privilege to do another take of a scene. You need to be an open instrument. Don’t think too much. We’re just jumping into the unknown.
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Question: Did it take you a while to find this freedom when you were young?
A: I had my mother who taught me theater. Then I went to my local theater conservatory and then to a private school. And there my teacher shook me awake. It stopped me from wanting to act like I was trying to be a great actor every time I opened my mouth. I was trying to prove it when I was 18 and he said, “Stop!” he would say. because he had “played” a lot. Then I started to feel something else. Being, not behaving. But when I started filming, right after that, I quickly saw that (Jean-Luc) Godard (who cast Binoche in the controversial 1985 film “Hail Mary”) had done nothing for me. Or don’t care about trying to help me. He was just trying to figure out what to do with the camera.
And I thought: OK, I’m learning something here. Never trust directors!
“The Taste of Things” opens Feb. 9 in Chicago.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.