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A meal, plus lessons in life and reconciling with your ex, courtesy of Juliette Binoche and ‘The Taste of Things’

Michael Phillips – Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Across 41 years and 70-some films, Juliette Binoche — the gold standard for cinematic expressivity, and for performances both imposing and delicately shaded — has figured out a few things.

One: “Do your own work. Because you cannot rely on directors.”

Two: Her favorite screen actor is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and they once spent four hours over dinner discussing “oh, everything. Life.”

Three: She does not like to be told to hold back, even — perhaps especially — by filmmakers she admires. Binoche’s latest film, the visually droolworthy period picture “The Taste of Things,” was written and directed by the Vietnamese French writer-director Trân Anh Hùng, whose works include “The Scent of Green Papaya,” a similarly delectable number.

“A couple of times,” Binoche recalls, “he came to me after a take and said, ‘Juliette, can you be more … neutral this time?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, neutral?’” She speaks these words with just a hint of judgment, in a tone of what can only be described as withering neutrality.

In “The Taste of Things,” which was chosen as the French entry for the category of international feature film at the upcoming Academy Awards, Binoche, 59, plays the cook Eugénie, the longtime culinary and sometime romantic partner of a renowned chef. They have retired to the country together. The story, based on the 1920 novel translated into English as “The Passionate Epicure,” begins in 1885, with Eugénie in subtly declining health, and the chef Dodin mounting a new stealth campaign of marriage proposal. Dodin is played by Benoît Magimel.

The film marked the first time Binoche and Magimel worked together since “Children of the Century” in 1999. Their off-screen partnership of the time, which lasted several years, produced a daughter, Hana. “I think it’s so sad when people separating don’t see each other anymore,” Binoche says, over a large, grazing sort of lunch at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills (filet mignon, polenta, grilled broccolini, et al.) “They don’t express what they’re feeling. It’s terrible. It’s burying yourself before you die.”

The following is edited for clarity and length.

Q: You filmed “The Taste of Things” in the spring of 2022. Does it feel like a long time ago?

A: “You know, not really. With a film that was quite intense to make, time works differently. The experience is still printed in you. Still very vivid, what we went through, because you had to be so present in every moment. So it stays in you. It’s not just passing through; it’s digging in.

I’d seen most of Trân’s earlier films, including “Eternity,” and I thought in “Eternity” he retreated from emotion a little bit. With “The Taste of Things” I wanted to give him as much emotion as I felt was needed. A couple of times after a take he came to me and said, “Juliette, can you be more neutral?” And I said “what do you mean, neutral? I am a human being, I have to feel, I have to live! I cannot block myself to please you intellectually.” So. I think I was smart at that moment. (smiles) I asked Trân afterward why he asked me in that scene to be neutral. He said he was afraid there would be too much emotion. But after I said “no, I can’t do that,” we shot another take and he gave me a little pat and said, “You know what? That’s fine” (laughs).

Q: I rarely get a single emotion in any of your work onscreen, whoever you’re playing. 

A: I think that’s preferable, yes? It’s important to understand the root of everything, and somehow link it to the surface of what you’re doing and who you’re playing. That’s why comedies are so difficult. I hate comedies, usually, because so often it’s about overstatement, and it doesn’t work for me.

As human beings, we carry everything with us, all the time, and it’s all being revealed while you’re shooting. That is the magic of it. You cannot push or will it into being a certain way. It needs to come out before the camera in a way you didn’t expect.

Q: Can you remember the first time you saw a film as a child where a performer just basically changed your life forever?

A: Yes. I was 6 or 7, and I saw Charlie Chaplin’s short films. And then I happened to visit Charlie Chaplin in Switzerland with my sister, for real, when I was 9. My father was a friend of one of his daughters, Victoria.

Q: So if the first person you saw onscreen was Buster Keaton instead, I wonder if years later you would’ve told your “Taste of Things” director, yes, fine, neutral is fine?

A: Who knows? (Laughs). We all have to be transparent as actors. To let things come out. That’s not neutral. It’s a sort of an abnegation. You give into something and let something happen so it comes out of you naturally.

Q: The kitchen in “The Taste of Things,” with the wood fire and the beautiful copper pots, it’s like a dream kitchen, designed to make 21st century audiences want to go to late 19th century provincial France immediately.

A: I know! I bought a farm a year and a half ago, 2 kilometers from my grandmother’s house, in Saint-Martin-de-Seignanx (near the Spanish border). I had some difficult memories there, my parents separating, sometimes a little rough. But it will be good for all of us, cousins and everyone, to gather there. It’s good to have a place for family. And my goal, when the farmhouse is finished, is a sort of “Taste of Things” kitchen.

Q: The first scene, or scenes, of meal preparation we see in the film — it lasts nearly 40 minutes, and it’s a swirl of activity, none of it ostentatious, from the picking of the vegetables at sunrise to the emptying-out of a fish for an omelet. By the way, what kind of fish did you stick your hands into in that scene?

A: Turbot. Also turbot in English, I think. Wait, I’ll tell you. (Checks French to English translation on phone). Flounder? You don’t say “turbot” in English?

Q: I’m afraid I’m not the one to ask! But “flounder” I know, which doesn’t sound nearly as good. What are you actually frying up in the pan in that scene?

A: The testicles! That was the first day, my first scene, we filmed. We had three fishes we could use if we needed to. I was nervous! I had never done that. But it was fine, we did it in the first take. The testicles were for the omelet. (Pause) I didn’t try it.

Q: Can we talk a bit about you working with Benoît in the film?

A: Yes, certainly. We had seen each other once in a while (years after they split up), because we have a daughter together. But we never had a real conversation about the past, things that happened. And then suddenly we were spending time, working together. I was very moved by this. And I think he was as well.

I think distance creates the need for expressing feelings. And so I used Trân’s words (in the “Taste of Things” screenplay) to express my feelings for Benoît. The medium became a sort of gift, a bridge toward him, and I was able to tell him everything: I love you no matter what happened, I care for you, life goes on, we have a wonderful child, I loved you then, and now I love you in a different way. And that’s the way it is.

For our daughter, it was like opening a door. She doesn’t remember us being together, so this was a sort of healing moment, seeing her parents expressing things between them.

Q: How would you characterize Benoît’s approach to acting in relation to your own?

A: He loves the freedom the earpiece gives him. Giving him the lines. He loves it. For the shorter scenes, he didn’t need it. For the monologues, he used it. I adapted to his needs and it didn’t bother me. We both like going on an adventure to see what happens in a retake. I feel like it’s a privilege to do another take of a scene. You have to be an open instrument. Not thinking too much. Just jumping into the unknown.

Q: Did it take time to find that freedom, when you were younger?

A: I had my mother as a theater teacher, who taught me. After that I went to my area drama conservatory, and then to a private school. And there, my teacher, she sort of shook me awake. She stopped me from wanting to act like I was trying to be a great actress every time I opened my mouth. When I was 18 I was trying to prove it, and she would say “Stop!” because it was too “acted.” So then I started feeling something else. Being, not acting. But when I started in films, right afterward, I saw right away that (Jean-Luc) Godard (who cast Binoche in the controversial 1985 film “Hail Mary”) didn’t give a (fig) about me. Or care about trying to help me. He was just trying to figure out what to do with the camera.

And I thought: OK, I’m learning something here. Never rely on directors!

©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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