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A French Connection

The last time Andre Techine cast his countrywoman Juliette Binoche, she was a 20-year-old unknown. Thirteen years and one Oscar later, she's back with the director on 'Alice and Martin.'

January 11, 1998|Lanie Goodman | Lanie Goodman, based in France, is an occasional contributor to Calendar

CAHORS, France — Juliette Binoche bursts into the cramped, smoke-filled room without knocking. Everyone freezes and stares at her in astonished silence. She pales, whispering an apology. Or at least that's how it reads in the script, but after 16 consecutive takes, French director Andre Techine still isn't quite satisfied.

"It's too static," he tells the extras portraying office workers in a Socialist Party campaign headquarters huddled around a table littered with papers, coffee cups and ashtrays heaped with stubbed-out Gauloises. "Keep taking notes, go on with the meeting. Don't wait for her."

But, then, who could blame them? In this stifling hot, neon-lit government office with bile-green walls, Binoche's sudden arrival is a gust of fresh air, and her bewildering radiance defies all laws of the spectrum.

It's been a dozen years since Binoche was given her first major role, in Techine's "Rendez-vous," and now the Oscar-winning French actress of "The English Patient" has come back to work with the director who instinctively "trusted" her at age 20.

In Techine's latest drama, "Alice and Martin," Binoche stars as Alice, a strong-willed struggling violinist with a passion for Argentine music who falls in love with Martin, a troubled youth-turned-successful fashion model (played by newcomer Alexis Loret).

It is Day 35 on the set and the final day on location in Cahors, a medieval town in the lush countryside of southwestern France known for its gastronomic delicacies and excellent wines. At this point in the story, Alice has just learned the dark secrets of Martin's past and believes she can reason with his family. In the scene underway, she tries to speak to Martin's estranged brother, Frederic (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a political candidate in the provinces, who dismisses her in front of his colleagues.

"But Martin's in bad shape," she insists. It's the 17th time you've heard that lump in her throat and watched a blush creep into her face. In a matter of seconds, what looked like childlike embarrassment has turned into womanly indignation.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Frederic answers coldly, and there is a pause. Everyone is waiting for the line--"He'll pull through"--but the actress is looking more and more distraught. Suddenly, she breaks into a peal of infectious laughter.

"I went blank," she declares with disarming simplicity. Even the director looks grateful, realizing that it's time for a break.

Binoche steps around the clutter of equipment in the hall, grabs a chocolate bar along the way and enters a sinister-looking office, seeking two empty chairs. She crosses her legs, poised but friendly, and waits for the first question. Known for her good-soldier attitude on the set, Binoche doesn't seem to mind that she has no dressing room or privacy. No whims, no fits of temper, and not a single complaint about the long hours.

Dressed in a pale-blue flowered skirt and navy sailor T-shirt unbuttoned on one shoulder, her character is supposed look simple, fresh but not glamorous. Easier said than done. Though the actress' dark hair has been rubbed with olive oil soap to dull the natural shine and she's wearing hardly any makeup, her dazzle clings to her, even off camera.

At first, the only Oscar she feels like talking about is a penguin by that name to whom she was introduced at San Diego's Sea World, the day after the Academy Award ceremonies. Binoche loves dolphins and dreams of swimming alongside them. "I once saw some jumping behind a boat . . . ," she begins, then changes her mind. "The Oscar [for best supporting actress] doesn't change anything essential for me. It was a wonderful gift."

This is the same expression Binoche uses to describe her contract with Lanco^me. By agreeing to model for the perfume Poeme, the 33-year-old actress enjoys the financial freedom of working on the films that interest her the most and donates a considerable amount of her income to a Cambodian charity, Aspeca. Modeling also allows her to spend more time at her 19th century home in southwest Paris, painting, gardening, and playing with her 4-year-old son, Raphael (whose father is a professional scuba diver named Andre Halle).

Being a "good mother" is high on the Binoche's list of priorities. So are "truth and integrity," as demonstrated the day the actress was fired from the set of Claude Berri's film on French Resistance heroine Lucie Aubrac over "artistic differences."

"My ambition is to have beautiful encounters," Binoche says with a sigh, "not to make money."

Is this why she decided to accept this part in "Alice and Martin"--a modestly budgeted love story with an unknown leading man--at a time when Hollywood has been throwing scripts at her feet like bouquets of roses? "Nothing else has really grabbed me." She smiles gravely.

Admittedly, she would have liked to accept the lead part in "Lulu on the Bridge" for writer-director Paul Auster, whose work she admires. Does her refusal reflect an ambivalence about spending too much time in America?

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