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Which of Juliette Binoche’s latest movies, made on each side of the Atlantic, has the better chance of bringing her fresh acclaim? One is a new Disney-financed comedy, Dan in Real Life, made on a Los Angeles studio lot; the other was a low-budget drama shot in London about refugees trying to make a new life for themselves, Breaking and Entering.
The comedy’s title is derived from the name of the family advice column supposedly written by Dan Burns, played by Steve Carell. Dan is the widowed father of three girls, two of whom are in their teens and out of control, making Dan possibly the least qualified columnist in history to offer solutions to other people’s domestic problems.
Escaping not just from his own children but from his wider family, whom he is compelled to meet each year in a chaotic reunion on Rhode Island, Dan meets and falls for a beautiful French stranger in a bookshop. It is only when he returns home to his kids that Dan discovers that Marie, played by Juliette Binoche, is in fact his brother’s new girl friend.
Rather than follow the advice he would have been sure to volunteer in his column, confront the problem head on in public, Dan suffers in silence. It leads to some hilarious misunderstandings and some agonizing moments for Dan, particularly during the family talent show and a mix-up in a shower, when Dan is forced to gaze upon the most delectable part of Marie’s anatomy, her derrière, seemingly without any chance of taking his brother’s place.
In Breaking and Entering, Binoche created a role rich with pathos. Set in the grim back streets around King’s Cross in north London, she played Amira, a seamstress and refugee from Sarajevo with a young son Miro. Her co-star Jude Law is Will, a landscape architect in a relationship with another woman, Liv (Robin Wright Penn), who has an autistic daughter.
Amira begins an affair with Will to prevent him from reporting Miro to the police after he was caught stealing from his office. Will cannot choose between the two women and the irony is that neither really wants him: their motive is the same, to protect and make the best life they can for their disadvantaged children, a concept that is completely beyond him.
Breaking and Entering reunited Binoche with writer and director Anthony Minghella for the first time since she appeared as the nurse, Hannah, her Oscar-winning role in The English Patient. On the face of it her performance for Minghella was far more to Binoche’s taste than the new US comedy, although she has had success in that genre previously. Seven years ago in Chocolat she played Vianne, a liberal-thinking single mother, who causes a stir when she opens a chocolate shop in a far from liberal Catholic village. The film was a huge international success, much to Binoche’s surprise, and did nothing to spoil her personal weakness for chocolate.
Challenged about the apparent incongruity of two such contrasting parts, Binoche, now 42, is quite unrepentant. “I am not a fonctionnaire, how do you say, a civil servant”, she responds caustically. “Life as an actor is not like going to the office, it’s all unpredictable, all ups and downs. You have to be true to yourself, take roles that you find challenging and creative.”
Juliette Binoche’s own life has been a tragic-comedy, full of happiness and heartbreak. Her maternal grandparents were Polish and died in Auschwitz. Her mother, actress Monique Stalens, divorced her father, theatre director Jean-Marie Binoche, when she was four and sent her to a boarding school that she hated with a vengeance.
Binoche lives in Paris with her two children, a son, Raphaël, 14, by a professional scuba diver called André Halle; and a daughter Hana, 7, by the French actor Benoît Magimel, whom she met and fell in love with on the set of Les Enfants du Siècle in 1999. There are unconfirmed rumours that Juliette has a new high-profile relationship that comes from her work. The parallel between fiction and reality is always left to be drawn by others, for Binoche is expert at keeping her private and public self separate. She says, perhaps of both, “Sometimes you have wonderful days, sometimes you have nothing. You have to accept it's like that.”
From our November 2007 newsletter