Juliette Binoche season 1: war torn worthies

As promised, following Kate Winslet season, we move to another European actress with an interesting career of challenging, deep films.

Juliette came to the notice of the more general cinema public in Chocolat (not simply a sweet tale, as I wrote here http://bookstove.com/drama/chocolat-not-simply-a-sweet-tale/). And she’d also come on the quality mainstream radar for her nurse in The English Patient.

But the arthouse goers had long known Juliette, particularly for her Three Colours: Blue role, but also for the obsessive affair with Jeremy Irons in Damage, in sex and philosophy with The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Perhaps her most recent well known role is in Cache/Hidden. But these are not my favourites – as I will show in other posts on the season.

She’s continued to challenge, to walk the line of the uncomfortable (eg, Elles), probing reality (in Mary and Certified Copy).

Two films I saw this week of hers had a common theme – the alien woman who’s been at the heart of armed conflict, whose tornness is as much about family as it is about military violence. The first was a new release at the cinema – A Thousand Times Good Night. There was more conflict at home, with a family who are sick of emotionally saying a final goodbye everytime their wife/mum takes a new assignment as war photographer. I found her marine biologist husband difficult, not least because I wanted to cut his hair and beard, but because of his reactions. Not the feelings themselves but his sharing of them (or not). I struggled with the very European film ending – ie that there wasn’t one. As the screen turned black, I wondered if there was more film coming or if the credits would start. When the latter happened, I felt cheated, and do not have a sense of closure or final understanding of the film.

I disliked the notion that one has to choose which family needs you more – your own or the one of your calling, and that the first family has to concede Juliette’s Rebecca to the Africans. Can’t they find a way to share, rather than one let go?

The moral point I’d like to debate is about war photography. Do people want cameras in their faces held by aliens, intruders, as the method of telling their story to the world? I feel cameras are intrusive and we’re having them too often – CCTV, unsolicited snappers at public events, who can put on the net for all to see. Have those crying maimed people given their permission, do they understand what the photographer intends to do with that image of them?

Whereas the belief of the photographer seems admirable, I am not sure about it as a method. In this film, Juliette’s character risks her life taking photos of a refugee camp that’s stormed (we do not understand why or by whom). She rushes the photos to New York (why there, when it’s a Scandinavian/Irish film?) and their publication leads to military support for the camp. Job done, says Rebecca and the film’s maker Eric Poppe, who was a war photographer himself. But I see swapping one set of pointing guns for another; these people, already having left their homes, still have the daily fear of soldiers and guns around them. Often guns beget bigger guns in retaliation. It means loss of freedom and fear for these refugees. Is this really the solution?

I was angered that there is an emphasis on the Muslim Middle East and suicide bombers in the film. I was more interested in the African issues – which seem less well known – than perpetuating a link that feeds the war on terror.

War photography does not act in itself – it leaves that to the viewer – but those being photographed at the time are not saved.

But then Diana used that technique to powerful effect; some say it gave her powerful enemies.

I also picked out an older film of Juliette’s: Breaking and Entering, where she is a Bosnian asylum seeker in London, with a son whose catlike agility is soon utilised by criminals. And he preys on a landscape architect with a fractured relationship and a daughter who also has gifts that feel like conditions. Unlike 360 which I also saw this week, Breaking and Entering combines several characters and communities from different countries in a way that didn’t feel overloading or spreading too thin. I cared about the central characters who I felt I knew, unlike the ensemble cast of 360 where only familiar faces gave any sense of resonance. In 360, we lurched from one scenario to another like a third world bus; but Breaking and Entering was well crafted and about deep issues – sometimes overlapping with 360, about marital breakdown and extramarital attraction, about crime and prostitution…. and yet did so in a satisfying, compassionate way.

The place I wasn’t satisfied was the resolution with Juliette’s character Amira in B&E who (PLOT SPOILER COMING) has to endure the sight of her lover holding the hand of his real partner, telling a non-court that their relationship was ‘inappropriate’. Will (Jude Law) brushes Amira off cruelly when she begs his help to not send her son to prison. Will  never apologises, never gives closure to that affair; and Amira, already living in reduced circumstances below her capabilities, already a foreigner here on Home Office’s permission, is further diminished and damaged by this man whose kindness and touch now seem tainted and counterfeit.

Juliette was excellent in both films as ever, but endings in both left me feeling a twitch of disappointment.

More on Ms Binoche anon.

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