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Binoche evokes quality of simply existing

NEW YORK -- What is she thinking? There aren't many actresses who can inspire you to ask that question. Juliette Binoche is one of them. Directors seem drawn to her by a quality of intelligence in her grave, wide-set eyes. They like to use closeups in which she is apparently doing nothing, just looking, and yet volumes of emotion are implied.

In her new film "Blue," she plays the widow of a famous composer who has been killed in a car crash. She does not react in the ways we think she might. This is not a tearjerker. After the initial shock, she retreats into an intense privacy. She does things that are not easily explained - like offering herself, without passion, to a man who had worked with her husband and herself. She buries herself in an anonymous district of Paris. She seeks solitude and passivity. Why is she doing this? What is she thinking?

Although she had already made several films in France, I first noticed her in Jean-Luc Godard's infamous "Hail Mary" (1985), where the Nativity story was set in the present day, and Binoche played the Virgin as a gas station attendant. It is probably impossible to play Mary in any event; what are the appropriate emotions and reactions on the occasion of giving birth to the son of God? Binoche's strategy was to project an unworldly aura, as if her thoughts were turned inward.

What was she thinking? "I was listening to Godard," she told me with a smile, when we spoke shortly before the American premiere of "Blue." "He put a little voice plug in my ear, hiding it under my hair, and used a radio to tell me the text. He would say a line, and I was supposed to repeat it. The actors never knew from one day to the next what the scene was, what the dialogue was. . . . We stayed in hotels waiting for Godard to come in and say, `Now we're shooting!' Then we would go on the set, ready to shoot, but, `No, we're not shooting. We're shooting tomorrow.' "

This unique way of keeping his actors off-balance is typical of Godard, whose screenplays are sometimes jotted on the backs of envelopes, but then consider her next major film, Philip Kaufman's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (1988), where she played Tereza, the young waitress in a rural train station. A worldly Czech doctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), who already has a mistress and wants above all to avoid emotional commitments, sees her. Their eyes meet. They go for a little walk after she gets off work. There is a powerful chemistry between them. Little is said. A few weeks later, she turns up at his door in Prague.

Here, too, the director was using a particular quality of Binoche's: her ability to suggest deep feelings without expressing them in obvious ways. Other actresses might catch their breath, blush, flirt or dare. Binoche simply exists, and we understand at once why she and the doctor must be together. Her films often involve very erotic scenes, but what the directors are looking for seems to be some kind of spiritual or intellectual quality. First impression

Consider, for example, Louis Malle's "Damage" (1992), a film that drew a wide range of reactions. I thought it was one of that year's best films. It tells a story in which everything depends on a first impression. A British official (Jeremy Irons) sees a young woman (Binoche) across the room at a reception.

As I wrote in my review: "They speak briefly, their eyes meet, and then each holds the other's gaze for one interminable second after another, until so much time has passed that we, in the audience, realize we are holding our breath. There might have been a moment when they could have broken the spell, but both chose not to, continuing the moment far beyond the bounds of propriety or reason."

This moment made the film for me. Everything that happened later followed from that sublime and hazardous instant when the two characters realized they were fated for each other - yes, fated, not destined, because she is the fiancee of the man's son. And dare I say that some of those who rejected the film disliked it because of that moment - because its unwavering eroticism embarrassed them? We are accustomed to a cheaper, more joking approach to sex in movies these days. It is easier for audiences to look up Sharon Stone's skirt than into Juliette Binoche's eyes.

When you see him for the first time, I said to Binoche, you look at each other for a long time. That must be one of the most difficult things for an actor to do.

"Not really," she said. "It's like when you see the sea. You see the sea, and it's completely large, wide, astonishing. And when you recognize something in somebody else's eyes, it could last forever. Time doesn't exist at that moment in recognition and emotion."

Were you looking at the sea when they took that shot?

"No. I was looking at Jeremy's eyes. That made it possible. Sometimes they ask you to look into the camera, as if it is the other person, and it's terrible because . . ."

You want to look right at the eyes.

"Yes. You have to have some kind of truth when you're acting. You can re-create things and work with your imagination, but sometimes it helps to really see."

Binoche speaks with a French accent; her mother is Polish and French, her father French, with some Brazilian in his family. She says she would like to work in Hollywood because she loves to speak English, and indeed her two best-known films, "Lightness" and "Damage," were English-language films. But there is something mature and European about her, and I wonder if she could play in a silly Hollywood thriller. She'd grab the ice pick, try to look scary and start laughing.

"Would I? I like differences. I wouldn't like to do the same thing all the time. And jumping and running in a thriller - sometimes it's fun. It depends on which eyes are gonna direct all this. Quentin Tarantino, for example, is one of the best directors, I think; I saw his thriller 'Reservoir Dogs,' and I think it was incredibly strong and terrible, but so wild and crazy."

In "Blue," she was directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, who is Polish and works in France and is considered by some to be the best European director now active. He deals with moral issues; he did a series of films, for example, on the Commandments. And he is concerned with the nature of identity. His previous film, "The Double Life of Veronique," was about two women, one Polish, one French, who in some unspecified way are the same woman. It was a film about chance, about how any of us could possibly be anyone else, about how we open our eyes and are looking out through one body and not another. Veronique, through a glitch in destiny, somehow got two bodies. At least that's one way of looking at it. The privacy of her hurt

In "Blue," the movie doesn't tell a plotted story. It simply invites us to regard a complex young woman during a crisis in her life. What is she thinking? Binoche is onscreen at almost every moment, and yet her character rarely tells us what she feels. She seeks the privacy of her hurt.

"I think she's a very strong person," Binoche said. "At the same time, very fragile. And that characterizes most of the parts I've been playing. She's dealing with things. At the same time, she's very closed and doesn't want to get involved in any more lies or problems. And yet life's coming to her, anyway. I think she's a happy person inside, optimistic, and yet if she opens too much, she's gonna start crying, and she won't be able to stop."

She was surprised, she said, that Kieslowski wanted to show the woman more or less in the same tone all the way through. "I thought we could have had more fun in the film being on different levels of consciousness . . ."

I didn't think of her on one note through the whole film.

"I think it's like the sea. It seems quite flat, but once you get inside of it, you feel all sort of currents and waves. I think there's the outside, where she stays silent, but inside of her, it's a lot of words, a lot of feelings, a lot of emotions - but she has to stay still. Otherwise, it's too much; she won't stop."

How do you do that, as an actor? How do you prepare for the fact that although your note may be the same to the camera, the note inside changes?

"I think I was full of the story before the film started because I had a friend, and something very like this story happened to her. I had it in me and Krzysztof was . . . it was very simple to do. He just said, 'You go there,' and 'Stop here,' and 'This is the shot.' And I just read the script, and did it. It was a kind of easy film to do."

There's a strange connection there, I said. You play a character who has the same experiences as your friend. And in Kieslowski's previous film, the heroine leads some kind of double life.

"I believe in coincidences. Which is another way of saying that there are no coincidences. It's like life winks at you."

In the film, there is a question hinted at, but never answered: Did the young widow in fact compose most, or all, of the music credited to her famous husband?

"That was one of the questions I asked Krzysztof about. He said, 'Forget about it. I'm not interested in knowing if she's composing or not. What I want to see in this film are the intimate moments of being alone with yourself; what you do, how you deal with the pain and with the others.' He knew what he was doing, but didn't want to explain. It was like being a patient in a heart operation. Kieslowski could open me up and look in my heart. I could see him doing his operation, but I had to stay still and be open."

And let him operate.

She smiled.

"He operated very quickly. He liked to do just one take and that was it - get on to another shot! And I felt frustrated. I wanted to try something differently, and go maybe further."

Maybe he thought the first take would be the most spontaneous and honest.

"Maybe. But also, he was used to one take in Poland because film was expensive. I said to him, 'Well, you can work in a different way here. You can spend some money on the film.' I think it's a question of morality. He doesn't want the film to be more expensive, and he thinks if you rehearse a lot before, you can get the shot in one take. The thing is, as an actor, when you have to give something so special, and you can't have it twice, then it becomes a problem.

"Sometimes I didn't feel it was right. I had to convince him. I went to see the sound engineer. I said, 'Wasn't it strange? The intonation wasn't right.' And the sound man would side with me, because of course all sound men are perfectionists, and nothing sounds right to them. And he would say to Krzysztof, `Yes, I think we have to do another take.' "

Did you want to be an actor from the beginning?

"A painter. I do both, actually, but there was a moment when I was a teenager when I was thinking, what am I going to choose? Because I thought I had to choose one thing.

"And then, I went to see a painter, one of my mother's friends, and she said, 'Well, why do you want to choose? Do both. Life's going to choose for you, anyway.' And it did."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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