Posts Tagged ‘Juliette Binoche’

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“Le voyage du ballon rouge”/”The Flight of the Red Balloon,” dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

October 12, 2009

"The Flight of the Red Balloon"

Not as audacious or as rich as Hou’s best work, but rewarding all the same. As gorgeous as, say, Christopher Doyle or Roger Deakins’ work can be, the cinematography here is even more impressive, absolutely stunning in the way complex, layered compositions are captured in the most ordinary settings. The way sunlight reflects over a train window, or how reflections frame the characters inside a café…These aren’t fabrications or alterations rooted in the filmmakers’ imaginations, they’re the result of phenomenal observational skills, and it’s all done with a naturalist aesthetic, using the most basic tools. (Only the obvious tricks involving the reappearing balloon betray any post-production trickery, a fact Hou sardonically acknowledges in the film.)

And like most of Hou’s work, this is a film built around subtle moments – small, fleeting expressions that reveal so much. During one crucial scene – played out in a long, well-orchestrated take – Juliette Binoche’s character, Suzanne, is overwhelmed and nearly pushed to collapse. The payoff comes after the flood of action leading up to that moment, when we witness the gradual changes in Suzanne’s face as she slips away from breakdown and dissolves into contentment, a sea change of emotion in what’s otherwise a slow, uneventful minute. (If you’re not fluent in French, it’s even worth seeing again without the necessary distraction of subtitles.)

Juliette Binoche (Suzanne) in "The Flight of the Red Balloon"

Juliette Binoche (Suzanne) in "The Flight of the Red Balloon"

There’s no escaping the strains that continue to chip away at Suzanne – her husband has been away for years, she has tenant problems and the separation from her daughter is also taking its toll. But she always finds her way back, through her work, through what she sees in Simon (shielded in childhood from the adult pressures she faces) and most importantly through Simon’s babysitter, Song, who’s appropriately enough a Chinese film graduate, making her a virtual stand-in for Hou…

Which brings me to the balloon: unlike the original French short, the actual red balloon in this picture keeps its distance. When it pops up, it’s usually seen outside a window, like an observer. It’s a perfect metaphor for the sensibilities at work here, of one culture gliding through another, and the comfort one now brings to the other.

By the end of the film, art seems to be treasured as a way of capturing something precious and ephemeral, whether it’s those gorgeous visuals I mentioned earlier or a sense of ease that needs to be preserved.

"The Flight of the Red Balloon"

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“Three Colors: Blue”/”Trois Couleurs: Bleu,” dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski

September 29, 2009
Juliette Binoche in "Blue"

Juliette Binoche in "Blue"

Blue is the first installment of Kieślowski’s Three Colors, where the ideals of the French tricolours are explored in a personal context, and when I first saw it as a teenager, I focused on the conceptual framework and not much else. The picture’s immaculate construction suits it for that sort of analysis – the color motif is very easy to pick out and just as easy to dissect. It was a nice way to approach film for the first time, but it was limiting, reducing it to an academic exercise.

For that reason, Blue seemed more like a picture to admire than something I’d ever relate to. Watching it now, it carries much more heft.

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The film centers around Julie (Juliette Binoche) and how she copes with grief. It’s almost enough to drive her to suicide, but when she rules that out as an option, she copes by running away. The first time I saw Blue, the logic seemed opaque and took some effort to understand, but now it seems very instinctive, not a matter of rationality but impulse.

Openly mourning feels too overwhelming, so she tries leaving behind all the things that fuel her pain – the memories that keep it in place and the marred emotional attachments that feed it. It’s even understandable when she tries destroying a commissioned work that she may have written (IMO, she probably did). It’s cauterization through withdrawal, removing all passions from her life to extinguish any raw sense of feeling.

When she tries living alone as a stranger, it doesn’t seem so odd anymore. Binoche’s performance always conveys torment that’s never far from the surface, and when reminders of Julie’s past life chip away at her protective anonymity, the moments are so agonizing, you almost hope she remains lost and invisible.

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She doesn’t, not for long. Her love for music stirs her too much, and eventually her withdrawal’s snapped by several key moments that set her on the way back…

Plenty of great films have covered similar territory (Last Tango in Paris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind come to mind), but as much as I liked those films, Blue cuts a little deeper, really understanding the collateral sacrifices made when anyone deals with pain in that manner.

Binoche said her performance was inspired by a friend who had suffered a similar loss, and she kept that a secret until the end of the production. Her performance is not only a remarkable gift to her friend, it’s a moving display of empathy that should leave anyone feeling a little less alone in their toughest moments.

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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.