Juliette Binoche - or La Binoche, as she is fondly known in the French press - dyed her hair blond and reconnected with her Paris roots for her role in Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge, the new film from Taiwan-based director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Flowers of Shanghai, Dust in the Wind).
During a whirlwind visit to the Toronto Film Festival, Binoche, back to her natural brunette, helped to introduce two films in which she stars (Voyage and Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai's Disengagement), shopped for shoes and made time to talk about Voyage.
The film breaks new ground for both director and leading lady. Inspired by Albert Lamorisse's beloved 1956 classic The Red Balloon, it marks Hou's first cinematic project outside Asia and features the most personal character ever created by Binoche on screen.
Binoche, 42, has pleased both critics and those who compile "world's most beautiful people" lists throughout her international career, launched in 1988 with her performance in Philip Kaufman's acclaimed adaptation of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and further buoyed by her best-supporting-actress Oscar for The English Patient (1996), another adaptation.
For Suzanne, the slightly harried, multitasking single mother and puppeteer she plays in Voyage, Binoche drew more from her own life than she did from anything on paper.
After meeting with the three key players - Binoche, Simon Iteanu, who plays Binoche's son, and Fang Song, the director's former workshop student who plays the boy's babysitter - Hou began writing scenarios loosely describing the 25 or so scenes that would eventually appear in the film. It unfolds in the streets of Paris and in Suzanne's comfortable but messy apartment, and Binoche improvised all her dialogue.
The result feels utterly natural and intimate, but it wasn't easy getting there. "Sometimes you are worried the director might reject what you are doing," she says, curling up in a chair in a hotel suite. "But once you give yourself permission to improvise, it becomes a very compelling experience. I was really creating a character out of myself for the first time. I never had that opportunity to be that free.
"My creation was to keep the adult world working in the film and to create empathy for this woman who is struggling like a hero," she continues.
"She is dealing with all these everyday basic life things you have to do to survive. How do you deal with an absent husband? How do you balance your passion with having a child? How do you deal with the problems of money?"
Binoche decided to go blond for reasons that are more than skin-deep. "There is something very intimate about this idea of trying to be a good mother and keeping it all together that is so close to me," explains Binoche, whose own children are 14 and 7. "I had to have something to remind me that it's not me, it's a blond girl!" She lets out an explosive, infectious laugh. "You know, I needed a little distance."
Binoche, who was born in Paris, now lives outside the city. "I decided with my children it wasn't healthy, and I need green around me and a sense of the seasons," she says. But that doesn't mean she doesn't still have a relationship with Paris.
"Sentimental," is how she describes her feelings now. "Many of my joys, successes, defeats are connected to the city. This is why I am touched by how Hou Hsiao-Hsien embraces the city, using reflections and sounds to create a beautiful picture that is not a postcard."
Now, preparing to star in Argentine filmmaker Santiago Amigorena's Another King Of Silence, Binoche will next appear on North America screens this fall as the object of Steve Carell's desire in Dan In Real Life.
Special to The Globe and Mail
TIFF's final screening of Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge is Saturday at 10 a.m., Scotiabank Theatre.