In the introductory paragraph of his 1994 interview with French actress Juliette Binoche, the American film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “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.”
It’s a characteristic of her onscreen presence that has not escaped me. If we’re to believe the adage that the windows are the eyes to the soul, then Binoche’s eyes, her unspoken presence, have communicated as much as words, gestures, and actions in her performances. What makes her an exceptional actress, is her ability to emphasise the silent and internal lives we live inside our minds.
Both Sides of the Blade (Avec amour et acharnement, 2022), also known as Fire, sees Binoche continue her collaboration with director Claire Denis. Previously they’ve worked together on, Let the Sunshine In (2017) and the English language science-fiction thriller High Life (2018). Their latest work shares a commonality with Let the Sunshine In, more than their excursion into space.
The questions of happiness or contentment, and the search for a loving relationship that can be sustained in Let the Sunshine In, are echoed in this story about a love triangle. Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) have been happy together for ten years. Until François (Grégoire Colin), a former flame and an old friend of Jean’s, re-enters their lives, she has no reason to suspect that she’s not content with the life she shares with Jean. She finds herself lured into thoughts of reconnecting with her past lover, which leads to a betrayal that’ll test her relationship and risk her being left alone.
In Both Sides of the Blade‘s exploration of the conflict between what one wants and needs, Denis and Binoche continue to critique and attempt to understand human nature. During our short interview, Binoche channels her philosophical nature amidst a busy production schedule. An interesting observation she makes about her character is how moral interpretations of actions can distract us from a more incisive understanding of why we do the things we do and why there’s a conflict between what we need and want. It’s a conversation that leads to the Jungian concept of the shadow complex and the pursuit of our authentic selves.
You’re a prolific actress. What has driven your career, and has it changed with time?
It’s a mystery. As an actor, you must have a certain nature – something that draws you in that’s beyond comprehension [laughs]. I was lucky to be born into a family of artists who loved theatre, so I was bathed in that atmosphere. My parents were creative in different ways – writing, directing, acting, teaching, and sculpting.
The love of art brought me joy, and my mother would put music on and ask my sister and me to dance in front of her. I had to express the joy of moving, singing, and being with the music. There was this unconventional means of expression that I was invited to live.
My mother was my theatre teacher when I was 12 or 13. She also directed plays, and I did the same when I came to Paris at 15. I directed plays at my high school, and when I passed A level, I went to drama school because I knew this was a place where I could be happy and express myself. I also wanted to be financially independent, and I wanted to be an artist. I was ambitious to express myself and give the world something special.
After 40 years, I still need to explore what it is to be human, to be inside of that question because it interests me. There’s the ambition also to reach people’s hearts. Underneath, people need to understand each other, even though it’s difficult to do so – to put yourself in the place of somebody else. Films allow you to do that, which is why good acting is important because it allows you more than just to look at and judge someone.
People who experience those same emotions will be touched, revealing something in their own lives.
The mistake we’re prone to make is cutting out the discovery of meaning and purpose as a path to happiness, whereas it sounds like you’ve found a healthy balance.
No, it’s just happiness – it’s what happened when I was five. I was not looking for happiness because I was already happy. Being creative made me happy. I wanted to continue because I had this combination of the two while creating. I’d also forget myself because creativity takes you to a more exciting place than yourself.
Your character explores the theme of what we need versus what we want. Often in conflict with one another, the ‘want’ is impulsive and loud, and the ‘need’ is quieter and easily silenced. Would you agree that we could critique your character in this way?
It’s an interesting question because that’s why my character in Both Sides of the Blade is surprised. She didn’t think she needed anybody else because she seemed happy in that relationship. Suddenly, this past love comes into her life, exploding like a bomb in her face. It’s almost unbearable.
What I loved about Sara is that instead of putting it to the side and saying, “No, my reason says I’m not going there because it’s going to ruin my life. It’ll fracture my relationship with the man I love”, she wants to know why Sara’s feeling this. It takes courage, and she also claims a kind of freedom. She says she’s learned always to obey and be right instead of being truthful to what she feels she is.
Maybe they’ll [Sara and Jean] survive that wave, which will dissipate and go away. Then they’ll gain that love for real. If you don’t go through challenges as a couple, then the relationship is dead – you don’t know who you are, and you cannot evolve or transform. A relationship is not a flat horizon over a horizontal desert, it’s a journey of mountains. Maybe towards the end, it’s easier, but that’s hoping, and I’m not even sure.
I like that Sarah is selfish. It’s a selfish thing she does, but it’s the truest she can be in that moment, so there’s this conflict. It’s a problem if you’re a pleaser and you’re not truthful. Sara wants to be truthful. She needs to be, and it goes with exploring what that is. It might hurt, but she’s brave enough, and she would like her partner to be brave enough to understand that. Of course, there’s the animal thing – you’re mine, you’re my wife. She’s going to see that this past lover is manipulative.
It goes back to the Jungian concept of the shadow complex, and how we must confront our shadow to be morally authentic.
It’s exactly that. My character wants to go into this dark place that’s hitting on her need. It’s a place that she cannot repress and control unless she divides herself into two. She’s brave enough not to want to do that. Going there allows a certain trust in herself and in her partner. Is he going to trust her? Is he going to trust that they can get past it?
It’s a mythological thing. You’ve got to go through the dark, the unknown, the unconscious, the forbidden, and the unconventional to know who you are and transform. It’s a wave of bravery. Instead of judging her as if she’s a bad woman because she’s with Jean and she has gone off with François, which is bad, it’s understanding that there’s something bigger to her decision than that.