Interview: Juliette Binoche – 'we have this ability, throughout time, to transform ourselves and that’s a real gift'
European icon and Hollywood star dives into her role as Antigone with relish
This article is from 2015.
It’s an unexpected place for a meeting with an iconic French film star: a Café Rouge opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. But if Juliette Binoche is dismayed by the touristy representation of her country’s culinary culture at this outpost of the French-style restaurant chain, she doesn’t show it. The epitome of Hollywood chic, she’s had a late night (a party after the previous evening’s performance of Antigone at the Barbican) but she’s bright and alert, exuding casual glamour as we chat about her latest role.
Over here, Binoche is most famous for iconic film roles in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, Louis Malle’s Damage, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat and, earlier this year, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria. But she’s done stage work too, starring in Akram Khan’s in-i and Frédéric Fisbach’s Mademoiselle Julie.
Her current theatrical role is over two millennia old: Antigone. When we meet in early spring, Binoche is midway through the show’s London run. After that, the production of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy will tour Europe (including her Paris hometown) before arriving as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.
‘I saw Antigone when I was 18 years old,’ she says. ‘It stayed in me like a print.’ So when she met up with acclaimed Belgian theatre-maker Ivo van Hove (Antigone’s director) on the suggestion of the Barbican’s head of theatre Toni Racklin and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg’s director Frank Feitler, it was a natural suggestion for a show to work on together; although Medea and Electra came up too.
‘Ivo said to me, “read Electra because there’s a wonderful translation”,’ she explains. ‘And he gave me [Canadian poet and classicist] Anne Carson’s translation, which I loved. I almost said yes to him and Electra because I was so taken by her writing and how direct it was and epic and lyrical and poetic and yet very real. So it was this combination that I really loved and then we saw each other again and I went back on to Antigone,’ she laughs. ‘And he listened, you know? So when he sees something that is really holding on, he doesn’t stick to an idea, he’s quite open in that way. So we were on the same page and we smoothly went into a big tour.’
Binoche and Hove might not have plumped for Carson’s translation of Electra, but they did ask her to work on Antigone for this production. The result is an impressively pared-back, contemporary adaptation, one that feels modern without compromising its classical roots.
For those unfamiliar with Sophocles’ classic, Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus. The play begins just after the death of Antigone’s brothers – Polyneikes and Eteokles – who kill each other while fighting for the throne. Kreon, their uncle and the new ruler of Thebes, decides to give Eteokles the proper funeral rites, but leaves Polyneikes on the battlefield, unburied. It’s this denial that pushes Antigone too far: over the rest of the play, she fights Kreon to honour her brother until the tragic end.
It’s this dynamic between Kreon and Antigone that is the play’s propelling force. ‘You can see from an outside point of view that it’s one versus the other,’ says Binoche. ‘For me, it’s more that Kreon is not yet listening. And he will at the end of the play but it takes so many suicides,’ she laughs, ‘for him to hear what everybody is saying.’
In van Hove’s Antigone, Kreon is played by Patrick O’Kane who, along with the rest of the cast, gives a mesmerising performance. Together with Carson’s stripped-back dialogue, they help lend the play a strong contemporary resonance that underlines Sophocles’ undying relevance.
‘What resonates in me when I read Sophocles is the need of truth, the need of growing, the need of awakening and the big question about how can we transform ourselves,’ she continues. ‘Because if we are here, there must be some kind of purpose and it is for each of us to find it. But we have this ability, throughout time, to transform ourselves and that’s a real gift, if you take it. We go through the same big themes as human beings, which are, you know, possession, power and enjoyment. And so how do we go through this in order to reach another layer in ourselves? And I think Sophocles is really asking that question. Antigone is ready to let go of the power, let go of the possession and let go of the enjoyment. So in that way she is a key figure.’
Binoche herself puts in a powerful performance as Antigone, and it’s a role she evidently relishes. The actress is looking forward to bringing the show to Edinburgh, thanks in part to a family connection: ‘When my sister was 11 years old, she was sent to learn English in Edinburgh by our mother, and I’ve seen the pictures of my sister going here and there, so I’m looking forward to visiting the city she was in.’
In the early summer and after the tour she’ll be working on some more films, including producing with Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska for a project which Neil LaBute is writing the dialogue. But she’s philosophical and deeply committed to her role as Antigone too. ‘Choosing a role shouldn’t come from the head,’ says Binoche. ‘It should come from something more mysterious. I didn’t know I wanted to play Antigone, but when I met Ivo, I said, “yeah let’s do Antigone”. It just came to my mind, because I forgot I’d seen Antigone when I was 18. But when I said it, it was so clear and obvious.’
Antigone, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, 0131 473 2000, 7–22 Aug (not 10, 17), 7.30pm, £15–£48.