Simply listening to Juliette Binoche talk about Japanese food is like having front-row seats to an award-winning performance. “I love soba, I could eat it every day,” she says, drawing the word “love” out luxuriantly.
The French actress is explaining her love of Japan, which, it seems, has only grown since her first visit here 35 years ago. Food has been a powerful part of this, the very thought of Japanese cuisine sending her into raptures.
Binoche is surprised but amused when I reveal that, even after 20 years in Japan, I don’t quite share her enthusiasm.
“What? So, you only eat eggs? Is that what you mean?” she says, throwing back her head and laughing.
I cite my Britishness as an excuse and try to change the subject. I want to hear more about that initial enchantment with Japan — surely it can’t just have been the noodles.
“I remember being mesmerized by the Japanese way of living — the gratitude, the politeness,” Binoche says. “I know it’s habit and part of being raised here, but there’s something in the way of thanking and respecting others that is very touching.”
The actress’ latest visit to Tokyo was at the invitation of Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, host of the inaugural Tokyo Festival World Competition, a mixed-genre contest featuring groups from five continents, performing over four days. The objective of the event, which took place from Oct. 29 to Nov. 4, was to explore new ways of evaluating theatrical work, especially those originating in vastly different cultures.
Binoche, 55, chaired the main jury and awarded the prize for outstanding show to an experimental theater artist from China, Dai Chenlian, at the Culture Day ceremony at the theater playhouse, where she was joined on stage by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.
What attracted the actress to the project?
“First of all, the fact that it’s international theater is interesting, because that’s what I love about art — that we can travel to different places,” she says, “And definitely the international purpose and the reflection about what are the future values and what are the present values, because then you have a comparison.’
It’s hard to think of anyone more suitable to chair a jury than Binoche, as she clearly knows what it takes to win prizes, being one of the most award-laden film stars in history. She has major accolades to her name, including an Oscar for “The English Patient” (1996), and was the first actress to win the fabled “triple crown” of best actress awards at the Berlin, Venice and Cannes festivals.
Binoche’s jury at the Tokyo Festival event faced a challenging task, though: How do you judge theatrical works across genres as diverse as improvised drama, “voiceless opera” and shadow puppet theater?
“I think the answer, for me, is when it’s true and it takes a risk, then it conquers me,” she says. “When it’s really truthful to the person doing it, meaning the performers and the director, of course, and everybody is taking risks.”
The idea of pushing boundaries is central to Binoche: Aside from the international flavor, it was clearly the novelty and originality of the event as well as the new ways of thinking it promises to open up that excited her.
“One of the biggest questions, and it’s fascinating to me, is: What is new?” she says. “As an artist, that should always be the first question: How can I create something new? What is my new vision? You’ve got to go into a dangerous place. If you’re too safe, it’s boring. When we repeat ourselves, that’s when it kills me. I fall asleep.”
Binoche’s filmography is testament to these sentiments, with a striking absence of safe choices for such a popular and bankable star. She has worked with some of the world’s most controversial directors, including Jean-Luc Goddard, Michael Haneke and Abel Ferrara, and on projects that have taken her from Chile to Bosnia and Herzegovina, South Africa and Iran. Along the way she has turned down such plums as Steven Spielberg’s offer of a role in the original “Jurassic Park,” about as benign and lucrative an acting destination as one can think of.
The journey has seen Binoche work with three Japanese directors to date: Nobuhrio Suwa in “Paris, I Love You” (2006), Naomi Kawase in “Vision” (2018) and Hirokazu Kore-eda in this year’s “The Truth,” in which she co-stars with Catherine Deneuve and Ethan Hawke. While Kawase’s film took place in the forests of Japan, both Suwa and Kore-eda shot their films in France.
Binoche says that, in the course of these experiences, she has not observed a common Japanese directorial aesthetic.
“Each person is different, and shooting in Japan and shooting in France is already a big difference,” she says. “I think Kore-eda had to adapt himself to French rhythms and ways of working. Suwa as well. Naomi likes to create a world for the actors to get into. She found her group of people, and they are like a planet around her. She created this almost soft animal moving around her while we were shooting in the woods.”
And what is the attraction of working with Kore-eda, whose star overseas has been steadily rising thanks in part to last year’s critical success, “Shoplifters.”
“I’ve been admiring Kore-eda for years and years and begged to make a film together,” Binoche says. “There’s something about him that moves me. I love especially when he’s shooting with children, because then he becomes a child. This film (‘The Truth’) was a wonderful experience. … It has many different levels: We’re in fiction and we’re in reality, in the light and in the shadows. And we can see the evolution of the characters.”
While Binoche seems happy to talk about the past, there is something respectful, almost dutiful, about her recollections — the three Japanese directors are “all beautiful human beings.” She becomes more enthused when we turn to her philosophy on life, which eschews nostalgia or forward planning by focusing all her considerable energy on the here and now.
“For me, the most important thing is the present, because if you project yourself too much in the future or in the past, you get glued to that time, and I don’t like to feel glued to anywhere,” she says with a laugh. “There is something about being creative in the moment, and the connection you can feel in the present creates the future, and is already in the past. So, there’s something in the present that is more real.”
Binoche believes in keeping her motivation alive and creative flame flickering by “nourishing the soul” and “having a relationship with the invisible.”
“You make a pause inside you, and do something for one or two hours a day, something that you love doing, seeing a play, film or exhibition, or walking in the woods,” she says. “Doing something that is special to your intimate being is important.”
Binoche adds that she also holds meditation to be important.
“The body is nourished with sensations, and only meditation can do that,” she says. “It opens the pores. It is giving something into you. But, in order to receive, the cup needs to be empty, which means being still and in silence, and within yourself.’
I allow a moment of stillness and silence in response to this and then promise that I will try my best, which elicits more laughter from Binoche. In the unlikely event of her ever retiring from acting, a second career as a life coach or inspirational speaker surely beckons.