On Mothers, Daughters, and “The Truth”: A Conversation with Juliette Binoche

I said, “Never mind.” I had to play her daughter, so I put my ego aside and kept saying “tu.” I just thought I would see what happened. And I took it and thought, “Wow! JULY 3, 2020

IN THE 30-PLUS YEARS since her star turn as Tereza, playing a plucky ingénue opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Juliette Binoche has long proven levity sans gravity artistically impossible. You both have such intensity in dialogue with each other, especially with your eyes. To show vulnerability allows humanity. She is doe eyes in stilettos, willowy swagger, ebullience with a shadowy edge. ¤ 
EILEEN G’SELL: As Lumir, you play a daughter to a very difficult, neglectful mother. Even in Claire Denis’s High Life, where you play a femme fatale, you break down at times. I can see it for myself, when I see my mother losing the strength that she used to have, because of age. ¤
Eileen G’Sell is a poet and culture critic focusing on film, art, and visual culture. And I ignored that. In her films by Cassavetes, she’s quite amazing. It was not, somehow, written that way. Definitely. The director is key to a project, of course. [Laughs.] She didn’t expect that I’d be so provocative. And Fabienne was not able to keep a husband. You’re both iconic actors, but so different. But I noticed that Deneuve channels that intensity in a more subdued way, whereas you physically move and shift more. Visiting Fabi’s Parisian home with husband Hank (a jocular, if homely sweatered Ethan Hawke) and their young, New York–raised daughter in tow, Lumir attempts to address a lifetime of tension with her mother, their discord only heightened by the recent publication of Fabienne’s memoir, eponymously (and ironically) titled The Truth. When I read a script, first of all, I want to know who’s directing. So I said to her, “I think we should say ‘tu,’ to each other.” She looked at me and didn’t answer. So I knew I had to provoke her once in a while. Yes. ¤
The Truth will be released in theaters and streaming on Friday, July 3. And Anna Magnani. She can be very generous and was very caring with me, because my father was very sick at the time. They are the three actresses I admire the most. But she has to be truthful to herself. That’s very painful. She decides that being closer to her mother is more important than being right, more important than feeling that she can be cured of the needs she had as a little girl, that she never had fulfilled. She’s a tough cookie.” But then she threw me a cigarette across the table! I’m so happy.” So I lit the cigarette, and Catherine was smoking, and I was smoking, everybody was wrapped in smoke. Is that something that you consciously gravitate toward? And, of course, we eventually see that it’s not as ideal as Lumir presents, because her husband isn’t working very much and is somehow an alcoholic. It allows us to follow as an audience — to change with the character. There’s a protectiveness to her. 
I get aggressive because it is a way to protect my husband, to protect my heart. JULIETTE BINOCHE: No matter who you play, you always go back to the relationships you had with your mother and father, the structure of childhood, the first emotions that are the basics. They’re being. I go back to smoking when I have to smoke in a film. He let us go with what we felt. I remember, in that dinner scene when she’s mean to my husband, once I provoked her, and at the end of the take, Catherine said to me, “You’re such a snake!” She was so surprised. You’ll smoke the whole thing.” And I said, “Well, then I’ll give you a whole pack in the days coming.” And she didn’t answer, so I thought, “Oh, wow. If there’s a transformation in the story that is interesting to follow, it can be related to the theme of the film. The way to deal with it is to fight, because it calms the need down somehow. But I see my mother will never change because she is preoccupied most about her acting. But then, after a while, she said “tu” to me because she felt comfortable saying it. I wanted to create roads between us. Lumir seems to forgive her mother in a way once she learns how vulnerable she is — that she isn’t entirely strong. He let me do what I felt was right for the situation. I think that Lumir knows that, in a conflict with her mother, somehow, it cannot go further. The meta meter is high, given that Deneuve, 76, is arguably Binoche’s most obvious cinematic predecessor. I’ve always admired Gena Rowlands. Is that something you feel is missing in certain roles for women? It’s important for viewers to relate to characters. It’s not so simple. It’s hard to believe it was the first time the two of you shared a screen. No. I feel betrayed, I feel brutalized. The other key scene is when I’m feeling that I’m going to be closer to my mother talking about the past. The Truth offers a pan-generational array of French female actors. Sprinkling “somehow” throughout her ruminations, the Oscar and César winner waxed as wondrous as wise. There are two key scenes in the film — one, between Lumir and Fabienne at the dinner table when her mother is being dismissive toward her daughter’s husband Hank. So I had to push her into emotions that she wanted to avoid as a character. At 56, a time when so many leading names are swallowed into matronly oblivion, the French actress’s roster of roles has only gotten richer (and sexier) — from witchy space scientist in Claire Denis’s High Life to adulterous TV star in Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction. In Kore-eda’s eyes, I was coming back to the house to show my mother that I had succeeded in my personal life: I have a husband, I have a child. Because you know underneath there are questions. In so many of your films, you combine a kind of vulnerability with a formidable strength. Her latest book is Life After Rugby (2018). To get inside the story, to get inside of them. And so I continued saying “tu” to her, but she continued saying “vous”! I tried to find doors to feel close to her, so that we would have a complicity that was special. I just need to get away from my need — to not feel in the need of a mother till the end of my life. The necessity for women in the past to be impervious to vulnerability in order to achieve certain heights? She’s not someone, for example, who would allow you to say “tu,” which is the closest form of address in French. Marooned in Paris for the film’s New York premiere (merci, coronavirus), Binoche was able to get on the phone to discuss her most recent film.   Exactly. 
Do you think that this strength reflects a generational difference? In their mother-daughter relationship, there’s complicity but so much conflict. ¤
Featured image: “Juliette Binoche au festival du film de Cabourg” by Georges Biard is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. What was it like playing opposite Catherine Deneuve? I’ve been a smoker sometimes in films, but I’m not a real smoker. Because she somehow knows her mother will never change. And to what extent can we, who have followed Binoche’s and Deneuve’s long and varied careers, fully appreciate the boon (and burden) of their respective legacies? It’s a kind of behavior that is beyond her control. And that touches me. He said, “You gave depth to this scene, because it cannot only be comedy.” He was cautious initially with our acting, trying to act with me, moving [around the set] and all. The director had to open the window. And what do they all share? It’s coming out of Lumir without her wanting to. They’re not makers. The film seems to ask to what extent can Lumir — or any daughter — can really know her mother? Which actresses — older or younger — have you admired, or do you admire today? I won this battle. There was also another door that I found to get close to her. The following is an excerpt from our conversation in early March. They have a need to be truthful both inside and out. Part dramedy, part pathos-laden family portrait, Kore-eda’s first foray into French cinema can, at times, feel tonally asynchronous: are we to laugh when Fabi starts flirting with her son-in-law over his sobriety-shattering glass of wine or wince at her audacity? But I think when I see my mother in need and getting older, there’s probably a consciousness of time passing. And I’ve always loved Liv Ullmann. She’s very narcissistic. They have a special relationship with themselves, inside. We get different kinds of layers — it’s not all perfect, or all dark, but a combination. That’s the story I told myself as I was playing Lumir. If you only show strength, no one believes it. Lumir is the one who changes in the film. At the time, she smoked a lot. It’s sad in a way, because she can see that her behavior is not what she wishes. I asked myself, at the beginning of the shoot, how I was going to be close to her — how it was possible to play mother and daughter, because Catherine is not easy to reach. My character has to get on another level — in order to get in touch with her mother and in order to get closer to her mother. You come across as indignant, but not spiteful — how did you balance these competing emotions? I’m playing her daughter. I thought, “Okay, she’s smoking. So the next day, when he was editing the dailies, Kore-eda came to me and thanked me. When you are away from the conflict or the relationship, you want to make progress, you want to do something about the needs you have that were not fulfilled as a child — but still stay in you. Lumir is coming back to her mother in order to try and resolve something, because that’s how we deal with it. That I find more fascinating, or more important, to play in any story. We can share the same ashtray, we can share the same light, I can offer her a cigarette, and there will be some kind of physical connection.”
And then rehearsing that dinner scene, I said, “Catherine, do you mind giving me a cigarette?” And she said, “No.” And I said to her, “But I will give it back to you.” And she said, “No, you won’t give it back to me. Kore-eda said to us in the beginning, “This is a comedy.” But, of course, when I read the script, I knew it could not just be a comedy with a mother-daughter relationship, especially if the mother did not take care of the child. With you, Deneuve, and Ludivine Sagnier, the film orbits themes of legacy. That said, the chance to see Deneuve and Binoche onscreen at the same time, and for the first time, is well worth the affective skids. And that’s when I want to attack my mother. For each family and each human being, there are places that need to be improved or transformed. In The Truth — Hirokazu Kore-eda’s newest feature — Binoche plays Lumir, the daughter of aging screen diva Fabienne “Fabi” Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve). The daughter is in need, but Fabienne’s character doesn’t want to deal with guilt, doesn’t want to deal with the past, doesn’t want to deal with things that are hurtful. Catherine — I love her. It touched me a lot. She often shifted from third to second and first person when discussing her latest role, as though Lumir’s inner life were also her own. But that was the game. You often play characters who are devoted mothers but equally committed to their professional lives. I had to invent ways. They’re not trying to make anything. When Lumir sees her mother getting jealous of the younger generation — someone so young she could be her granddaughter — she feels for her mother. But after that scene, he stopped moving around [and stayed behind the camera]. I will smoke with her! I think it is this transformation that is the most exciting. It was interesting.