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Juliette Binoche at BAM

September 22, 2009

Tonight, I saw Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blue as part of a Juliette Binoche retrospective at BAM. First time I saw it was 1994, when I was just getting acquainted with film, and at the time, it was like solving a puzzle: every detail had to be broken down and analyzed over and over again until the characters and the whole picture could be easily explained. 15 years later, there wasn’t any need for analysis – everything was recognized and understood, easily and immediately. I credit this to familiarity, not from repeated viewing, but from experiences since then…

I’ll write more about this later (and about two films by Martin Scorsese – time for me’s a rare commodity these days), but I want to share one shot before moving on to Binoche:

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Régent

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Régent

I’ve never noticed this until tonight, and it’s further proof of how much is lost when you see a film on a television set (or a computer screen). Projected in 35mm, the detail was obvious: Binoche is soft while Régent is in razor sharp focus. (FWIW, I doctored the image above to make this more apparent.)

The one on the left is escaping an enormous amount of pain and will leave behind memory and emotional attachment. The one on the right is in love with her.

The depth of field is so shallow, Régent only needs to be placed a few inches to Binoche’s right, allowing her shadowed features to dissolve ever so slightly, inching towards anonymity.

•     •     •

Binoche is currently performing a dance-theater piece at BAM’s Harvey Theater, just a few blocks down the road, and she showed up after the screening to discuss Blue and her career. She was kind to the audience and very articulate (not to mention radiant).

Possibly the most surprising revelation about Blue was that Kieślowski preferred ONE take; Binoche had to push for two. His initial excuse was to simplify the editing process with less options, but Binoche pointed out that Kieślowski made most of his films in Cold War Poland and tight resources in that environment would have influenced his work ethic.

When shooting for Blue began, Kieślowski apparently rehearsed each scene as many as five times before turning on the camera for a final take; towards the end of the film, Binoche convinced Kieślowski to flip the ratio around. (Binoche joked that whenever an unsatisfactory take fell short of a standard met in rehearsal, she would needle Kieślowski that they would’ve avoided the problem had they filmed their later rehearsals as actual takes.)

She also talked briefly about Michael Haneke (who saw right through her in Code Unknown but to her surprise couldn’t seem to read her in Caché), about Abbas Kiarostami (who offered to develop one of her ideas, a proposal she hasn’t quite accepted yet) and the creative freedom Hou Hsiao-Hsien gave her in The Flight of the Red Balloon (which apparently was improvised all the way through, with complete freedom given to the actors and the cinematographer). She clearly enjoyed working with all of them.

Her most striking comments involved the filmmaking process in Hollywood. For starters, she didn’t want to differentiate between American filmmakers and others because each individual director was different for personal reasons, not just cultural. Having said that, she echoed the same sentiment I’ve heard from many veteran actors – that filmmaking had become more and more of a technical craft, to the point where it’s dissolving the relationship between directors and actors. Twice she mentioned “TV controllers,” and initially, I thought she was referring to video assists. The second time, she sketched out more details, of directors spending more time in a separate room, lined with monitors, while consulting with script assistants. Paul Newman used to lament this trend; it made it easy for an actor to feel lost right before a scene, as if they were abandoned by the director. This set-up was unusual to Binoche twenty years ago, and she compared it to Kieślowski’s presence on Blue, where he, like most of her directors then, would stake his place next to the camera. (Kieślowski also trusted his cameraman to follow through on their plans, enough that he rarely monitored his work.) The same with Hirokazu Koreeda – in a recent conversation with Binoche, he agreed with her sentiments and revealed that he never directs his films that way, preferring to stay next to the camera as well.

Technology was supposed to make filmmaking easier, to make it more accessible so that it can truly become an art form the way Godard once defined it (something as affordable as paint and brushes rather than an endeavor for the wealthy). In Hollywood, the tools seem to be taking over, inflating costs and dictating the methods of the filmmaker instead of the other way around.

When Binoche talked about her experience making a Hollywood film, she wasn’t trying to be critical, but she described a process that felt stifling creatively. She detailed a slow and bloated procedure weighed down by the demands of rote coverage (shooting a standard laundry list of shots as if they were following an instruction manual). This was in stark contrast to Kieślowski, who knew exactly what he wanted and filmed only those shots before moving on to the next scene. With the larger production, “making” a film was more like making a product.

To be fair, she did mention that Haneke’s methods were equally elaborate as well (I might have misheard, but it sounds like he uses some sort of sophisticated modeling to plan out his films). But I came away believing that filmmaking had become too dependent on its technological trappings, that it was time to shed them.

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