by Alex Beggs
In her unsexiest movie to date, Juliette Binoche stars in Elles, a film about a journalist (for . . . Elle magazine) working on a story about two college-age prostitutes—a project that forces her to question her role as a mother, wife, and woman. Elles, which is rated NC-17, includes several very graphic, very pleasure-less sex scenes. Here we chat with Binoche about researching her role, filming a masturbation scene, and her upcoming film with Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis—highlights from our chat:
VF Daily: What kind of research did you do to prepare for your role in Elles?
Juliette Binoche: I saw a documentary that was made during the writing of the script. The director followed two young girls escorting. One of them, after the shooting of this documentary, stopped. It was as if she was suddenly aware of the system she was in. The other one couldn’t quit; it was almost like a drug addict. The motivations for doing it is the big question. Why would they do that? From an outsider point of view, you want to judge them: “How could you do that [to] your body? How could you sell yourself?” And [you] despise them, too; you don’t want to be too close. But when you understand the motivations, it’s not really the bags and items of luxury. The real motivation is beyond that. I think it’s more related to a lack of protection, a lack of being taken care of, that usually comes from very early on, in childhood, with the relationship with the father. Because of a lot of divorcing families, you don’t always see the father as much as the mother.
The motivations are not always seen and explained in the film. That’s the challenge of the film—you’ve got to make up your own thinking, your own feeling out of it. That’s why I was taken by the script. You see the dark sides and the light sides, but you don’t exactly know what to feel and think. Even in America, it feels very puritanical, but when you see the violence in the movies—the killing, the jokes about sex—it feels very uncomfortable, very unhealthy. Sex is a very important topic, but if you don’t talk about it, I find that more dangerous in a way than talking about it.
It’s interesting that the M.P.A.A. tends to give movies with sexual themes higher ratings than violent movies. Elles is NC-17, whereas The Hunger Games is PG-13.
As soon as you see a naked body, the rating is 18. But if you see a killing, it’s [appropriate for a] five-year-old. This is insane!
You’re not a married woman. Did that make it difficult for you to connect to your role?
Being an actor, you’re facing a lot of emotions all of the time. That’s the joy of an actor but that’s the curse of the actor, too. As a young actor, it’s very disturbing, because of course you believe everything you’re doing. It’s part of the joy of creating. You’re in a world where you have to make a belief system, through your body, through your mind, through your imagination, through your sensations.
Making a structured life out of [acting] is very difficult. It’s almost impossible, because it doesn’t match life. You’re going into a higher life in a way, the intensity of life is bigger, is more interesting. Yet if you want to have children, you have to have structure, because they need the structure in order to evolve. You need to create a possible world in order to fit in, in order for them to grow, and for you also to stabilize. Whether you find the right person or not, that’s the big question. But I feel like, throughout the years, I’m pretty clear about why I’m doing this work and my life being what it is.
Your character has been described as “sexually repressed” and “sex deprived.” Do you agree with those descriptors?
When your heart is at the right place, the sex is working. There’s a lack of heart; there’s a loss of heart [in this character]. I think the love is not present enough. Habits are more present than love, so what do we call love? What is this fire we talk about? The need of sex comes not out of your mind, but out of your heart. Throughout the years, the heart sometimes goes away. [With any] couple, you’re going through waves. You lose it and then it comes back to you. Not losing this is an art form. It’s not about sex. It’s about heart.
I think the scene where your character masturbates is interesting because it represents a self-love that you have to maintain when other relationships fall apart. Was that hard to film?
Malgorzata Szumowska, the director, wanted to go in another room and watch the monitor, saying, “I’m going to leave you to do the scene and I’m going to watch it.” I said, “No way, darling. You’re going to stay with me. You wrote the scene, I didn’t write. You had the courage to write this scene; you have the courage to stay with me.”
She gave me a DVD of different girls’ faces going through masturbation that she found on the internet, and it was fascinating, almost [like] an art form. You see the girls go through birth, and through dying, as well.
The responsibility for telling the story is bigger than the difficulty of it. You raise into another gear, into another purpose. This woman is so lost, doesn’t feel her body, her heart. It’s very disturbing.
At the end, she feels even more alone; the masturbation is not fulfilling. Because what is a sexual relationship? Is it taking pleasure out of the other person’s body? Or using the other for your own pleasure? Or is it a sharing on another level? Is it reaching some other world? If you touch the other world with somebody, it’s very intimate; it’s very special. If it’s coming out of “I pay you money and I have my pleasure”—that’s another gear.
Let’s talk about your upcoming David Cronenberg–directed film, Cosmopolis, which stars Robert Pattinson. What’s your role?
I’m an art dealer. I only shot two days. The whole film takes place in a car. There are some scenes outside, but mostly it takes place in a limo. Cronenberg placed Robert on one seat, and I was the mover in the scene, so he let me improvise. It was fascinating to see how they would take time to light the car. It was like an art form almost, a painting. His [cinematographer], Peter Suschitzky, is very precise in that way.
Robert was stunned to be taken by Cronenberg, because he didn’t think he could do it. But Cronenberg believed in him. It’s amazing—a director sometimes makes you do bigger things than you imagine. You need to have, like, a midwife to give birth. You need this midwife in order to grow, and imagine these new layers in yourself.