Film

Interview: Juliette Binoche on Embracing Fiction, Revealing the Truth and Creating Four Characters for Who You Think I Am

It would be impossible in mere words to explain the majesty and the mystery of one of France’s greatest acting talents, Juliette Binoche. One only has to look at her 60-plus list of film credits (plus about 20 in television) to understand why she has captured most major acting awards (including an Oscar for 1996’s The English Patient). But those accolades only scratch the surface of a career that includes mesmerizing performances in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Damage, Three Colors: Blue, Code Unknown, Chocolat, Dan in Real Life, Certified Copy, Cosmopolis, Clouds of Sils Maria, The Truth, and three recent works from writer/director Claire Denis, Let the Sunshine In, High Life, and her upcoming Fire. Hell, she’s so good, she withstood the most recent incarnation of Godzilla.

Image courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Her current film is Who You Think I Am, a pre-pandemic-filmed work from director Safy Nebbou (who adapted Camille Laurens’s novel with Julie Peyr), in which the 57-year-old Binoche plays Claire, a 50-year-old divorced teacher who creates the fake Facebook profile of a 24-year-old woman named Clara. She uses the account to attract the attention of her younger lover’s best friend, Alex (François Civil), who treated her badly on the phone when she was trying to get in touch with the boyfriend. But during the course of her seduction of Alex, she actually begins to fall in love with him through a series of direct messages and phone calls (some of which get pretty graphic). Claire is telling this misguided love story to a new therapist and not being entirely truthful along the way, but she does admit that her actions are partly due to being dumped by her ex-husband for a much younger woman and that being perceived as younger has always been important to her.

Who You Think I Am is yet another Binoche film in which fact and fiction are fluid, and few actors know how to work within that space as convincingly as she does. It’s almost like watching a flawlessly executed magic act, but with far more emotional resonance. I had the chance to talk with Binoche recently, and we walked through the process of creating the many characters she has to take on in Who You Think I Am. This one gets a little deep at times, but it’s also a great deal of fun. Please enjoy…

The title of the film implies that the film is about someone who is desperate to control the way other people see her. Someone even mentions at one point that Claire likes to seem young or younger than she is, but it goes far beyond that, and social media makes it much easier for us to create fictional versions of ourselves. As an actor, you’re playing someone fictional all the time, while at the same time looking for the very deep truth in them. Do you see any parallels between those two worlds?

Not really, because as an actor you’re revealing yourself through a character, through lines you didn’t write, but you’ve got to make it so intimate and truthful and real, so it resonates for people who are watching the film. As in the situation of Claire dealing with Facebook and creating the character of Clara, it’s more on the surface. She is creating this younger mind and trying to escape certain subject matters and making it into jokes, so it’s a way of playing, I would say, more than revealing yourself.

When you were preparing for this role, did you have to prepare to play two different characters essentially? Was there a creation of two mindsets, or do you see her as all one person?

I saw it as four. [laughs]

What were the other two?

Well, there’s the university teacher, who is an abandoned wife, dealing with children. Then there’s Claire. Then there’s the fictional character, this idealization of her with this boy that she’s totally in love with, and he’s in love with her, and that makes her feel a different way and accepted, even though she kills herself at the end. And then there’s a person she is in therapy, which is denying the truth, yet revealing the truth. It’s all somehow transforming and trying to go through all that nightmarish fiction of dreams. So for me, there was more than two; there are actually four.

About the therapist, in films and reality, therapy is usually thought of as a sacred space where you are supposed to be as honest about your life as possible, and having Claire lie to her therapist feels like a violation for the audience and the therapist. Talk about that experience because that’s a tough thing to get past, when we realize Claire is an unreliable narrator.

It’s because her belief system is damaged, and she created that because it was unbearable to be abandoned and accept that, and being betrayed so deeply with a member of her family. That she’s resisting because it’s too painful.

You’ve certainly been in films before where fact and fiction aren’t always clearly defined. Do you enjoy toying with your audience like that?

I think I’ve been with directors who love that theme. Michael Haneke [Code Unknown, Caché] loves that theme, Abbas Kiarostami [Certified Copy] loved that theme, and others. It’s a very human-kind theme because when we go to sleep, we’re in a fiction, and then we come back to reality, it’s another reality. If we have an accident, suddenly time and space are different. We go into these spaces all the time, and the big question is “Where is reality?” After life, after death, where is reality? It’s the question of life, and so the fact that films that are fiction make you believe in stories, it’s really pushing you into that big question: What are we dealing with in life?

There were times in this story where I was genuinely unsure if I should be rooting for this relationship to work out somehow. Of course, it’s impossible for Clara and Alex to ever be together, but when they talk, they are clearly in love and you hate to think of that ending. Also, it’s great to see Claire/Clara so empowered and in charge, and I didn’t want her to lose that. Did you think about that at all, and what does winning look like for Claire?

That’s a big question, and that’s why the title of this film could easily be made into the question “Who do you think I am?” Also, the mindset of an older woman to be happy with a younger man is still questioned because you think it’s never going to work. The difference of older men with younger women is accepted in our mind, so it’s an interesting question actually. While I was shooting, I had feelings for the young actor and I was wondering how I would deal with that, or do I allow myself to consider this possible situation? You’re frightened because you think it’s going to hurt bad [laughs]. You prefer somebody who is closer to your age because it feels less like it will lead to a possible crash.

The two of you, you don’t have that many scenes together in the first part of the film, but you share a lot of very intimate moments, and you have to convince us that this relationship is real. When we see you on the phone together, are you really talking to each other?

Yeah. Safy Nebbou, the director, really made sure that [François] would be on each call with me, and the first call we have is actually the first time I spoke to him. And he did that for the whole shoot, and at a certain point, we were shooting in an apartment that was quite small, and I didn’t know that François was in the apartment, and I wanted to go to my dressing room, and I had to go through the place where he was. I remember Safy saying “No, no, you don’t go there.”

I love the concept of Claire having to tell her story all over again to this new therapist because it gives her a chance to rewrite her own story and take out the parts she doesn’t like. We don’t get many chances in life to do that. Is that an interesting prospect for you to play someone who gets to do that?

I was in therapy for a very short time in my life, but when I did it, I did it very intensely and my goal was to be truthful as much as I could. If you go into therapy, you want to—first of all, it’s so expensive, it takes time, so you want to go deep into the places where it’s going to help you in life. I stopped, first of all, because acting is so about knowing yourself that there’s a moment when you know yourself and relationships and why you chose certain things, and it’s so therapeutic. The more you expose yourself, the more you have to go in, because that’s the demand of acting. As to rewrite yourself, I don’t know what to say about that. I think we try to reinvent ourselves as much as we can; this life is not about repeating oneself. Yet, we have the morning, lunchtime and night, so this pattern feels comforting in a way, but repeating yourself is a sign of death. That’s why I choose to do another film, it’s to reinvent something or to experience something new, otherwise, I don’t feel like doing it. Life is too short.

Speaking of not repeating yourself, you recently completed your third film with Claire Denis. The three films you have made with her are wildly different, but I’m wondering if you can talk about your working relationship. Why is she someone you enjoy working with again and again?

The thing is, when you work with a director you’ve worked with, it’s never the same, because the subject matter is different. They aren’t coming into the shoot the same way, you’re going to be reaching other emotions, you have new partners, sometimes different languages. I’m going from one story to another story. I mean, I was on a spaceship in Germany with Robert Pattinson and a bunch of actors coming from around the world that you’ve never met before. It’s totally another circumstances and atmosphere, so even though there’s a complicity because you’ve done something together, it’s quite different. And on the last one [Fire], it was even more different because I was working with an actor I’d never worked with, and I felt Claire was quite tormented during the shooting, so I don’t know what’s going to come out of it.

I read an interview with Safy, and he said he wrote this character with you in mind. I’m guessing that’s not the first time that’s happened, but how does that make you feel when someone is such an admirer of yours that they have your face in mind for a role?

Right. I don’t know if it’s out of admiration. I think it’s out of a need for the characters they’re writing, and to try and see if it can meet their need, vision, expectation—inside of them, this story is growing, and who do they need in order to go into that? There’s a moment when you’re really traveling with someone, and you have to be patient and trust each other and confront each other sometimes, you have to love each other. There’s so much to deal with, so you better be with someone who wants to travel with you, so the choice of the actor is really the choice of the film, especially when the actor is there all the time. It’s more of a need that drags you to the choice of the actor more than admiration. I believe some directors will choose an actor they don’t admire particularly, but they believe they can fulfill the need they have for this film.

This is a film based on a novel, and I’m wondering, whenever you do a film based on some other source material, how deeply do you dive into that original source material for additional details about the character you’re playing?

Oh yes, of course I read the book. And while I was reading, I took out some of the sentences that felt very important for the character that weren’t in the script, and Safy was smart enough to allow that, and it was great. He was not offended or feeling like he had to protect something, but more us working together and being in the intelligence and need of the story, more than what belongs to me and what belongs to you. You want to reach another level when you’re working with a good director or actor that had the capacity to do that.

I love that Claire is teaching Dangerous Liaisons to her class, because that is also a story about people not being honest about who they are to get in someone’s good graces. Can you talk about the inclusion of that, because those scenes of her teaching seem very important?

Yes, that’s in the book, and the writer, Camille Laurens, taught the novel, and the theme of this dangerous place where you pretend, and it’s dangerous because you can die because of it—it can kill you emotionally. Because Les Liaisons Dangereuses was so successful, everybody knows the film by Stephen Frears, Safy used it in the film. At the time, the writing in the Les Liaisons Dangereuses shows the superb way people demonstrated their thoughts and their ability to express your feelings and all of this manipulation, and in text messages, the intellectual capacity and emotional capacity is highly reduced [laughs]. It’s interesting to compare those two, even though it is about manipulation in both cases, but the way of doing it is totally different. And you’re laughing and I’m laughing about it.

Our standards are different today.

[laughs] Yes!

Juliette, it was a pleasure talking to you. Best of luck with this. Thank you so much.

Bye bye.

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