In 1,000 Times Good Night, Juliette Binoche plays a photographer in a tricky situation. In the movie's first scene, as part of an assignment to document suicide bombers, an extremist group has allowed her to shoot them as they pray and dress a woman with explosives. After she exits their car, she draws the attention of the police, and the bombers decide to detonate early — as Rebecca is caught between her dual impulses to warn people away while also continuing to take pictures. It’s a scene that won’t leave you easily. Binoche chatted with Vulture about the ethical dilemmas of war photographers, her New York Film Festival selection Clouds of Sils Maria, and what it was like to go skinny-dipping with Kristen Stewart.
By being present for some of the events taking place, your character Rebecca changes the outcome.
Do you think there was some part of her that wanted to both subvert their purpose — make sure they didn’t hit their original target — but also still document something newsworthy, perhaps with less collateral damage?
It was kind of the purpose, to have a situation that shows the complexity that happens in a war zone, because there’s an element of guilt that she’s going to carry, and yet, in the world we live in, we need to have some information — Why are suicide bombers doing what they’re doing? And yet, the police coming was not expected. She has to adapt in a different way because of the changes happening, and try to save as much as she can — and save her own life. You don’t want to get killed, of course! But at the same time, I was asking myself while I was doing it, How can someone put herself in this kind of a situation? A suicide-bomber situation? Because there’s a shock between what she’s going through in her private life, as well as seeing a child be a suicide bomber. How far is it going to go? How can you stop the madness? You can’t.
Plus, this event comes at the beginning of the movie. If she kills five people and three children, you’re going to hate her! So how as an audience do you follow her through the whole story? She has to have some guilt, so she can reflect on it in her life, whether she wants to continue working. It shows that it’s not a black-and-white situation. It’s much more complex.
One of the ethical dilemmas she faces is, when you’re documenting something like that, are you complicit? If you don’t do anything to stop it?
Exactly. That’s why I have mixed feelings about war photographers, even before I started the movie. How can you go into places and participate in the war, even though you’re giving it a chance to be known in the world? It’s like the Vietnam War photo [of the naked child running], it changed the whole war. And it changed the meaning of a war photographer’s job. You’re being the witness. War photographers have to be able to plug in, so they can open our eyes.
Are you a good photographer, by the way?
[Laughs.] If I was in a war situation, I’m not sure! [Laughs.] You’d have to have such strength, and a need of being there. It made me realize that each shot taken in a war zone, it takes courage. They’re like warriors. So they train like warriors. Because they’re in peril, and they have to assess a situation — Can I stay? Or do I need to go? That’s why it’s fascinating. And you question it, because you say to yourself, Is it like a drug, with the adrenaline rush? This film brought up a lot of questions for me, and I’m not sure I have all the answers, but I know when I see a picture, when I see a video from a war zone, I know how much it cost. It made me realize how brave photographers and journalists are.
Robert Capa, who was a Jewish Hungarian war photographer who documented the Spanish Civil War, he was one of the first war photographers, and his girlfriend Gerda Taro was also a war photographer and died during the war because of this. Capa said that a good picture is the one that is the closest. If your picture’s not good, it means you didn’t go close enough. So it gave a sort of philosophical idea: Risk your life as far as you can.
And yet we take those photos for granted most of the time. Rebecca complains that her pictures don’t get the same kind of traction as Paris Hilton getting out of a car without underwear.
Absolutely! That’s really a question I ask myself, because if I pick up a magazine, I see the star stories, and then also horrific pictures of a war here or a war there, and then you go through the football game coverage, so how can you combine those things? We got too used to the war, and we don’t see it as a reality. I know a French photographer, and he said to me that during World War II, in Paris, when he started seeing what was going on, he stopped taking pictures. He couldn’t take pictures. Which is kind of what happens to Rebecca at the end. It doesn’t say that, but it puts a big question mark over it: Can she carry on like this?
But that’s a struggle for her because this is her passion, just as acting is for you. Your Clouds of Sils Maria co-star Kristen Stewart said that you wouldn’t say something as simple as, “I’m hungry,” that you would be like, “I have this deep need,” instead.
[Laughs.] I can say, “I’m hungry!” I can say it right now! I’m hungry! Actually, right now, I’m hungry! [Laughs.]
Shall we get you a cheeseburger or something?
[Laughs, nodding.] You know, when it comes to acting, you can come to a role, but the role also comes to you. There’s something of a call. You need to do it. And sometimes I don’t always know why. Sometimes the role is for you but you say no because it’s something you don’t want to go through. But someone will sometimes say, “Hey! Go back to the script. Reread it again. You need to do this one.” So that’s why you have people around you, because sometimes you first say no because it’s going to put you in a naked place that is not always comfortable.
Well, you were the one naked and comfortable in Clouds, while Kristen kept her undies on and was uncomfortable, for the skinny-dipping scene…
To show your body has to be a gift. It’s not easy. It takes a lot, in a way, but you have to be ready to surpass that when you’re an actor, because it’s not about you. It’s about someone else, which makes it stronger and more beautiful. For me, for that scene, because my character was going through an honesty, an inside nakedness, I couldn’t see myself holding back. She has to go in naked! So even though the water was cold — so cold! — the jump has to be without thinking. And it could also be because I’m older and there’s a freedom that comes with maturity, you know? We forget. We forget about that. We always talk about, “Poor us, we’re getting old,” but actually, we’re gaining something. We don’t focus on that. And I think that should be talked about in feminine magazines! [Laughs.]
Could you relate to Maria in Clouds or bring any of your own concerns to the role? Such as how she’s looking back at her own career, or her relationship with the director who launched her career?
I think she’s doing more than looking back at her career, I think she’s hanging on to it. Because she had success, and not only success, but a real encounter with this director, where they had something special. So to let go when he dies is hard for her. To play someone who is going through hell, you start to see yourself. To transform those feelings and to make it into a role, into an art form, takes courage. There are mornings where you don’t want to go there! You want to have a nice, relaxing morning! But putting yourself inside of this, the reward is beautiful, if you really embody it, if you’re really giving it. And sometimes it’s actually a delight, to go into that uncomfortable zone. You get used to that, and it’s enjoyable, if you don’t know how it’s going to take place.
And I did of course think of Anthony [Minghella, who directed The English Patient], because he was very special in my life and my career. And when he died, it was very painful. The difference is, I’m not trying to hold onto time. I don’t have that need, probably because the present is so intense. For me, the question is, How can I make this present time as truthful as possible so I don’t have a fear of the future or the past? So the vertigo is not happening? Maybe when I’m confronting my father getting older, it’s confronting the vertigo thing, because it’s a big step. But in my own life, I can be grateful for what’s happening now.