Put Away Your Hankies
PITY POOR RALPH FIENNES. IT'S BAD enough that as the title character in the newly released World War II romance The English Patient he had to spend six hours a day having his face swaddled in layers of goop to look like a dying burn victim. But he also had to tolerate the teasing of Juliette Binoche, who, while playing the French-Canadian nurse who tends to him in a bombed-out Tuscan villa, seemed dead set on spoiling all that cosmetic artistry before the cameras even rolled. "If he moved his mouth much, the makeup would crack," says Binoche, 32. "But I kept whispering jokes in his ear until he was begging, 'Please don't make me laugh, please don't make me laugh.' "
The actress—a star of the first rank in her native France, where many know her simply as la Binoche—punctuates her tale with a startling truck-horn guffaw. "People look at me sometimes when I tell a joke and say, 'Oh, you can laugh!' "
The misperception is understandable. A certain sad vulnerability has been the touchstone of Binoche's work. She played the forlorn young wife of Daniel Day-Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1986), a solemn seductress who has an affair with Jeremy Irons in Damage (1992) and a numbed widow in Blue (1993). Though the critically acclaimed English Patient will increase her universe of fans, Binoche's role as an emotionally wounded caregiver isn't likely to change her image. "Juliette has this amazingly light touch," says Anthony Minghella, the film's director. "But at the same time, there's something about her that conveys a sense of loss."
Binoche insists her choice of roles "has nothing to do with me personally. I'm happy. When I read a script, I just want it to make my heart beat." Still, there was at least a touch of sadness in her upbringing near Paris. Her father, Jean-Marie, and her mother, Monique, both stage actors and directors, separated when Binoche was 4. She and her sister, photographer and actress Marion Stalens, 34, divided their time between their parents and a Catholic boarding school. "We were gypsies," says Stalens. "We were surrounded by love, but our childhood wasn't entirely rosy."
Money was short. Rather than take vacations, says Binoche, the family spent holidays reading and acting out plays. Thus inspired, Binoche, at 15, moved to Paris to attend a high school specializing in the arts.
Though she enrolled in France's state theater school in 1981, Binoche dropped out after winning a small role in director Jean-Luc Godard's drama Hail Mary. That gave her professional experience, but she says she learned almost as much working for four months in 1983 as a cashier in a Paris department store. "The cash stand was built up, and I could watch the customers," she says. "Some were bored, some were in a hurry—but they showed me all these different ways of being. It was like seeing a movie." Between shifts, she attended casting calls and won roles in the 1985 romance Rendez-vous and in Lightness. "She has this luminous presence," says the film's director, Philip Kaufman. "She did a reading with Daniel, and after she left, he and I just hugged each other."
Several Hollywood producers tried to hire Binoche after Lightness opened to critical raves. Instead, she spent the next three years working on the financially troubled drama The Lovers of the Pont Neuf with her boyfriend at the time, director Leos Carax. The film, shot in fits and starts, was a commercial failure, and what she calls the "intensity" of the project brought an end to her relationship with Carax. During filming, though, she met André Hallé, a professional scuba diver. They lived together from 1991 to 1993—but Binoche will say little about their romance, which produced a son, Raphaël, now 3.
Nor does Binoche appear much in public with her current boyfriend, French actor Olivier Martinez, 29, whom she met in 1994 while making The Horseman on the Roof, a historical romance released here last spring. "I try to reveal myself on film," she says. "But afterwards you need a place to go, someplace private."
Still, she doesn't hesitate to talk about the other man in her life—Raphaël. Sitting recently in a Manhattan hotel room, Binoche smiles warmly as she contemplates the subject of motherhood. On a table sit a half-dozen Dr. Seuss books, waiting to travel with her to the unpretentious stone house outside Paris where she lives with her son. Though her work often makes it necessary for him to live for stretches with grandmère Monique, "I think Raphaël is a happy boy," says Binoche. "His father sees him a lot. I know it's not easy when your parents separate, but maybe it's made him grow faster."
And growth, professionally or personally, is a worthy goal, says the actress. "You have to go through difficulties to open up and understand life," she says. "If you're always in a sugary, round place, you never go anywhere." In philosophy or films, it seems, Binoche has a taste for the bittersweet.
CATHY NOLAN in Paris and SIMON PERRY in London