Juliette Binoche doesn’t have a lot of time. This is impressed on me over successive days leading up to an interview scheduled with much difficulty. Were there an American equivalent to Ms. Binoche, who turned 45 this summer, I’d imagine her with hours and perhaps even months to spare, as she waits out the Hollywood actress’ awkward stage, after the ingénue years and before settling into the wise/bitter matriarch roles. And yet Binoche, born and raised in Paris, has entered the most fruitful (if perhaps hectic) stretch of an already remarkable career, adding explorations of dance and art to her full film slate. Viva la France.
Her role as Élise, a Parisian social worker dealing with her brother’s illness in Cédric Klapisch’s ensemble film “Paris,” is the latest in a line of roles showcasing Binoche’s quiet domination of whatever film she’s in. Having appeared in critical sensations “A Few Days in September,” “The Flight of the Red Balloon” and “Summer Hours” over the last three years, Binoche experienced a reunion, of sorts, with “Paris”: in addition to filming on her native turf, Klapisch is a director she first met in 1986, on the set of “Bad Blood,” where he worked as an electrician. We spoke — briefly! — about their collaboration on her character and how being an outsider might be an advantage when it comes to capturing Paris’s many moods.
You have a distant history with Cédric Klapisch — had you followed his career since then, since he began directing? How did you reconnect for this project?
Yes, I knew him on “Bad Blood,” and we spent one day together during the filming of one particular scene. He was working as an electrician. Since then I knew he was making films — his films are very well-known in France — so yes, I knew his work and we have some of the same friends.
He approached me about this film and we had a nice dinner — we talked about the project but he was still in the middle of writing it, so a lot was up in the air. I suggested that my character be a social worker. Initially I wanted her to have five children from all different regions, you know, of all different stripes. Eventually that changed because that was just a little too much, but the idea of her being a caretaker was something we collaborated on.
Why a social worker? And is she a character that you felt you knew or someone you had to explore a bit more? Through the diversity of its characters, the film touches on aspects of Paris we rarely see, what part of Paris did Élise represent to you?
I thought that by making her a social worker we could have one character who took in the whole city and was exposed to all the different branches of life. As well it meant that taking care of her own life was difficult, because in her professional life she was so focused on taking care of others — it sets up a kind of contradictory situation. I did spend a few days with a Parisian social worker, so I spent some time getting to know what that job is like, but I also knew another aspect of the situation from the time I spent researching my role in “The Lovers on the Bridge,” where my character spent some time outside, and is caught up in a hopeless social situation. You learn that without help or family, it’s very hard to get back into society, and it can be a vicious circle.
Social workers try to provide help, but there’s a lack of money in cities like Paris too, so they end up filling out papers but not offering real solutions, which makes the people they are trying to help even more depressed. It seems like you have to get lucky to get yourself out of a bad situation.
These sorts of ensemble films with interconnected storylines are more and more popular — some of them click and others don’t. What do you think is key to making so many storylines hang together? Why do you think it works in this case?
Well, that’s Cédric’s way of putting it together, I had nothing to do with it. Those are all his choices. I was just excited to get to work with actors I haven’t been able to work with before. I appreciated that, I enjoyed it.
A number of your recent films have been shot in Paris, and it’s such a magnetic city for directors. I’m wondering if you noticed any interesting differences in how, say, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who was making his first film in the city (“The Flight of the Red Balloon”), approached the task, as opposed to Klapisch, who is known for his work shooting Paris. Did their different perspectives show you anything new about your hometown?
They’re very different, very different. Cédric is a Parisian, he’s lived there his whole life, and he wanted to show a more realistic version of Paris: the everyday Paris, with butchers and models and dancers and social workers — a spectrum of life and interaction.
Hou’s approach was much more impressionistic — even though there is a degree of reality in it. His approach is somehow freer, I think, because he is an outsider. There’s a lightness to it. When you live there, you often get more interested in presenting things as a puzzle, and trying to figure the city out, which is what I think Cédric did.
“Paris” opens in limited release on September 18th.