The Star: Juliette Binoche has been called the most beautiful actress in French cinema. She's also the highest paid. Born in Paris in 1964 to a movie-director father and an actress mother, Binoche got her first break at the age of 24, an unforgettably sexy role in Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Best known for her Academy Award-winning performance as Hana, the French-Canadian nurse in The English Patient.
The Movie: In Quelques jours en Septembre (A Few Days in September), a French-Argentine-American thriller, Binoche plays Irène, a French secret agent who must protect a young American and his French stepsister, and try to reunite them with their father Eliot, a former U.S. spy. Chased by a psychopathic CIA agent (John Turturro), the three fugitives realize that Eliot is somehow implicated with Saudi bankers and Afghan operatives in events that could topple the American economy. Oh yes, and the film's title refers to a few days in September, 2001.
The Story: As the three lead characters flee from Paris to Venice, the two twentysomethings flirt and squabble, while their guardian Irène compulsively cleans her gun. "It keeps me calm," she says, grimly clicking the parts into place.
Unlike Irène, guns make Binoche very nervous. She once declared that movies have "too much violence, you know? Violence just to have violence . . . just to sell the movie. And that just makes me sick." Of course this was before she played dead-eye Irène.
Binoche is a European liberal, who feels guilty about driving a car and thereby contributing to the world's oil dependency and pollution. While visiting the United States in the days before the Iraq war, she says she was "shocked" by the pro-war coverage on television. "There was no safe channel!"
Sitting in a dazzling lamé trench coat and filmy frock in a Toronto theatre lounge alongside A Few Days' writer-director Santiago Amigorena, Binoche discusses preparing for her role. "I had never cleaned a gun before, but I practised and practised. My teenaged son and I trained together," she says. "When you become a character, you have to love the things you wouldn't normally like."
She got so into Irène, Amigorena says, "she changed the script as we went along." Binoche looks dismayed, so he touches her arm gently. "She [Binoche] knew more about the character than I did." The actress convinced him that even the acid-tongued, tough Irène would dress up a bit, arm herself with a touch of fashion, before meeting with Saudi bankers.
Irène is an embodiment of Europe's love-hate relationship with America. When the film played in Toronto on Sept. 11, 2006, a couple of Americans walked out, possibly offended by the film's moral ambiguity about that tragedy. But Amigorena insists that it is absurd to think that no one but Osama bin Laden knew what was going to happen on 9/11. Binoche jokes: "If George Bush sees this movie, he may say, 'Oh no, there was much more to it than this!' "