The French Collection Vol 1: Juliette Binoche Review
French cinema has always been notable for the strength of characterisation of female characters and for having exceptional female acting talent of the likes of Danielle Darrieux, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart, Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Emmanuelle Devos and Ludivine Sagnier. When aligned with the vision of an auteur director (Béart with Rivette, Huppert with Chabrol, Devos with Desplechin for example), the results often produce something unique and special. More than any other French actress, it is perhaps Juliette Binoche who has made the greatest international impact, working in France and the US and achieving unique collaborations with some of the most important filmmakers in modern world cinema including Godard, Téchiné, Carax, Malle, Kieslowski, Haneke, Figgis, Minghella, Ferrara and most recently with Amos Gitai, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami.
Binoche’s apprenticeship as a naïve but intense young actress with the French auteurs Jean-Luc Godard (Je vous salue, Marie, 1985) and André Téchiné (Rendez-vous, 1985) set her very early on a course for challenging cinema that would make extreme demands on actors. Juliette Binoche was fearless in these early films and even more so when she came to work for the wayward and unpredictable Leos Carax. After their initial collaboration on The Night is Young (Mauvais Sang, 1986), a playful thriller that unashamedly glorifies Binoche in close-up as much as it pays tribute to classic Nouvelle Vague and silent cinema, Binoche remained committed to Carax through the difficulties that made Les Amants du Pont Neuf (1991), at that point, one of the most notoriously extravagant and expensive French films ever made. Her commitment to Carax and her belief in the project over the four troubled years of its production meant that Binoche would never fail to meet the high demands of the director and would turn down many offers of other work during the period. Brilliant through the results often were, the critics were harsh on a confused film with an uneven tone, and it was inevitably a commercial failure.
The failure of Les Amants du Pont Neuf did not hold back Binoche, who would then focus on her international career, having already proved to be an equally formidable and capable actress in the English language through Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). Her international profile would continue to grow, and despite being miscast in roles alongside Jeremy Irons in Louis Malle’s Damage (1992) and opposite Ralph Feinnes as Cathy in Peter Kosminsky’s Wuthering Heights (1992), the actress would go on to deservedly win an Oscar in Anthony Minghella’s all-conquering epic The English Patient (1996). Binoche’s success and achievement in the US was not at the cost of her commitment to French and international cinema, the actress during the same period making an incredible impact in Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue (1993), and diversifying her dramatic work in French period dramas - The Horseman On The Roof (1995), Les Enfants du Siècle (1999) and La Veuve de Saint-Pierre (2000) - with contemporary drama, Alice et Martin (1995) (re-uniting the actress with André Téchiné), and even light-weight romantic comedies such as A Couch in New York (1996) and Chocolat (2000), which are undoubtedly elevated by her sparkling presence.
Although still diversifying her cinema work between popular mainstream English-language cinema and challenging work for auteur directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abel Ferrara, it’s perhaps Juliette Binoche’s work with the controversial director Michael Haneke that has produced one of the most challenging and fruitful director/actor collaborations in recent years. Binoche was personally instrumental in bringing the Austrian director to France to make his films initially with Code Unknown in 2000, delivering a strong, nuanced performance that delves deep into a complex character undergoing profound psychological challenges both in that film and in the later Hidden (Caché) (2005).
Artificial Eye have collected in The French Collection Volume 1 three key works from the main periods of Juliette Binoche’s French filmmaking career which amply demonstrate her diversity and ability.
Three Colours Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993)
Juliette Binoche has never been more intense, enigmatic and expressive than in the first film of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s challenging trilogy of films based on the colours of the French flag - Blue representing the theme of liberté, freedom. Binoche plays Julie, a woman who finds herself unable to deal emotionally with the loss of her husband and her daughter in a car crash. Wishing to distance herself from the practicalities of the fact that her husband, a famous composer, has left a nation in mourning, Julie tries to deal with her bereavement by leaving everything and everyone in her life behind her, seeking the most absolute kind of freedom – freedom from the world around her and from the memories in her mind.
Blue is a deep and complex film, dealing with a mind that is trying to shut itself down, and consequently much must be conveyed without words, description or explanation. It’s hard to imagine any actress as fearless as Binoche who would be capable of throwing herself into such a challenging role and succeeding in reaching the depths demanded. Kieslowski’s genius is in his ability to subjectively show us the world from the perspective of Julie’s unstable mind, while Binoche’s brilliance is in making a cold, difficult and often unsympathetic character who is no longer able to function in any kind of personal relationship, reluctantly spark back into life through her the creativity of her mind. It’s a truly compelling performance in a remarkable film.
Full disc review - Three Colours Blue.
Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000)
Dealing with his favourite theme of showing the cracks in society and the underlying violence that lies just below the surface, Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown is a thought-provoking examination of the multicultural societies of the metropolises that we live in, and the associated difficulties we have interacting and communicating with one another because of differences in appearance, age, social or ethnic status.
Formally challenging, consisting of a series of unbroken, unedited scenes, Code Unknown is also challenging to the viewer, forcing them to consider what they are viewing and filter their unique impressions through their own experience and sensibility. The film is also extremely demanding on the actors, Juliette Binoche’s character in particular being almost sadistically subjected to scenes of intense physical and mental violence. To her credit, the actress brings a human element of strength and vulnerability to Haneke’s notoriously cold and cerebral approach.
Full disc review - Code Unknown.
The Night is Young (Leos Carax, 1986)
A colourful, stylish, romantic crime thriller about a couple of rival gangs attempting to obtain an AIDS-like virus from a laboratory, The Night is Young (Mauvais Sang) is the work of a filmmaker in love with the possibilities of filmmaking, in love with his characters, the actors playing them, their faces and expressions, and Leos Carax puts everything in service of them, drawing influences from diverse sources and exploring his own world of light, colour, music and movement.
For Carax, the film was principally a means to photograph Juliette Binoche and get her to fall in love with him, and you can’t fault any director for that, especially any director who coaxes out such a love affair between an actress and the camera. Binoche is dazzling, though she has little more to do than look wonderful for the camera, batting her eyelids innocently and pouting for her numerous close-ups. In her willingness to run with whatever the mood of the film and whim of the director demanded however, she would go as far doing her own stunts during a dangerous parachute jump scene from a plane.
Full disc review - The Leos Carax Collection.
The French Collection Vol. 1: Juliette Binoche is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. A three-disc set, each DVD is in PAL format, on a dual-layer disc, and is encoded for Region 2. Three Colours Blue has been previously released individually and as part of the The Three Colours Trilogy. Code Unknown has also been previously released individually and as part of The Michael Haneke Collection. The Night Is Young has been previously available as part of The Leos Carax Collection. The specification of each of the DVDs is identical to their previous editions – please refer to the full reviews linked above for details on the A/V specifications and extra features.
Artificial Eye’s The French Collection Vol. 1 contains three of Juliette Binoche’s finest work for three of the most important directors in modern French cinema (although only one of the directors is actually French). All the films have been previously available on DVD from Artificial Eye in fine editions, each with a good selection of extra features, but collectively in this set, they admirably show the strengths of French cinema and of one of the finest actors in the world at her very best through very different stages of her career.