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Juliette Binoche on Her Prostitution Movie Elles, Collaborating Like a Grown-Up, and Fame

Juliette Binoche. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Juliette Binoche won us over with her performance as a bourgeois, sex-deprived Parisian journalist and mother researching prostitution among university students in the racy NC-17 drama Elles, which will screen this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival before its April 27 theatrical release. In the film, which is directed by Malgorzata Szumowska, Binoche gets to know two intelligent, enterprising young women of modest backgrounds (played by Joanna Kulig and Anaïs Demoustier, both excellent) who’ve turned to meeting men over the Internet and selling themselves as a way to fund their educations. Through their intense conversations, Binoche begins to sense the awakening of her own repressed sexual desires, which begin to emerge, bringing some fairly softcore elements to the surface. We sat down with Binoche to discuss her preparation for such an intense, vulnerable role, the film’s portrayal of prostitution, choosing scripts from her gut, and why disagreeing on the set is a waste of time.

What drew you to the part?
I read the script, then met with Malgorzata. I liked her way of being straightforward; she has a special energy. With regard to the subject matter, I was a little suspicious, because I don’t like films with messages or big topics. I always find it very dangerous. But I liked the way it was written, with different perspectives from men and women. There are no “good” and “bad” characters. You see all the contrasts of weaknesses and humanity.

You prepare pretty intensely for your roles. How did you prepare for this one?
We watched a documentary about two young prostitutes, which helped me understand how it happens. But my idea was to not prepare in a way, because the bareness was the challenge of it — like when my character hears about the girls and starts dealing with her own sexual desires, then tries to make herself sexy after everything she’s been through. The preparation was no preparation. I just wanted to let the camera get inside my weaknesses.

Some people are of the opinion that prostitution empowers and liberates women. Do you think the film is arguing that to some degree?
Not at all — it just looks like it is. The girls are so independent: They’re going through the Internet, then using the money to buy luxury items. It feels evolved, an easy way of being in society and flirting with danger without getting into too much trouble. But of course, I think the film says — and you see as it progresses — that the girls are actually going through hell. What they seem to not take badly, like being peed on and things like that, it’s more complicated than that. You feel that in the end.

So there are multiple layers at work, then.
Yes. And that’s what it is in our society. It’s hard to find a boundary between what’s wrong and right and bad and good, because it’s all mixed up. There’s sex appeal everywhere, in the media, in advertisements; young girls are not even 18 and they’re already spreading themselves into positions that remind you of prostitution. So the young mind thinks, “Well, why not me? Doesn’t feel that dangerous or horrible — it’s accepted by society.” But it tells about a person’s fragility. It makes a separation between your body and your heart, your being.

Another thing the film explores, perhaps more subtly, are class differences: You have a wealthy woman who seems imprisoned by this wealth, and then you have these two younger girls with no money, living more freely because they have less to lose.
My character is in this bourgeois world where she has all the items, but then forgets she has them. The girls are drawn to being in that bourgeois world of having the best TV, the best table, the best couch, the best family, the marriage contract, the children, the good job, everything. I think that’s where they feel the connection: My character recognizes in the girls a desperation she herself feels, because she feels so trapped by everything.

Would you say the same thing about celebrity?
Yeah. I think you have to break the images people have of you, because otherwise you are trapped by yourself. Choosing different films is a way of risking your image. You have to be intelligent in that way so you don’t get trapped in a bourgeois way of choosing films.

How do you choose scripts?
I don’t know. I’m not thinking of the consequences; I make choices out of my heart. If you make choices out of your mind, it’s dangerous. When you make choices of your heart you cannot regret anything, because you believed in it. And whether it worked or didn’t work, whether people received it or understood it — it belongs to you, it’s your choice.
Publicists and agents do so much strategizing. Have you ever had anyone telling you what to do?
I’ve always made my own decisions. I don’t want to be making a choice because of commercial ideas. It’s the risk I’m taking. It’s like a painter, you know? Whether you make a painting for a commercial purpose or whether you make a painting for the painting. At the end of the day, that’s what I want to do.

So you have to be doing it to give something, not just to gain something. It’s not about your own ego, or about being famous.
What comes out of the fame is not that glorious. I think it’s a slavery. [Laughs.]

Malgorzata’s only made a few films, and you’ve worked with a lot of big names. Would you say there was a difference working with someone less experienced?
No. It’s exactly the same. It’s interesting, because she says that my trusting her gave her the confidence to be the director she is. Anything she was proposing, I was for it, whereas before she had had to fight sometimes.

With other actors?
Yeah, because they were doubting her and asking questions. My attitude was, “We’ll see if it works!” The joy of trying is a creation in itself. As we try, we see whether it works. And she’ll see herself whether it works or not. I won’t judge it before it’s happening. That’s been my attitude with all the directors. As soon as you say yes to a project, you say yes to everything. It has to be a big yes; it can’t be a small yes. If you argue, you’re losing the energy. It’s boring to be in that type of situation. It’s not real creation. You’re using your soul, experience, everything you have, personal things. You’ve got to be able to put it into art.

So you don’t waste time letting your ideas clash with theirs, even if you don’t agree with them.
No. Her idea becomes my idea, and my idea becomes her idea. The hierarchy doesn’t interest me. It’s boring. I’m not a little girl anymore. I’m not a soldier. I’m an artist. I see the others as being artists as well. When you’re on the verge of something together, it’s fun. Even though you’re going into depth, or a kind of crazy situation, it’s always with a wink somewhere. This is fire; this is dangerous. But it’s so alive. I need a guide in order to plunge. I need her there to tell me, “Yeah, this is it. We’ve got it.”

Juliette Binoche Takes On Prostitution and Fame