Juliette Binoche on playing Coco Chanel: ‘We all contain a little vice as well as virtue’

'We are losing the way of thinking about cooking as an act of love': Juliette Binoche stars in The Taste of Things as a cook
'We are losing the way of thinking about cooking as an act of love': Juliette Binoche stars in The Taste of Things as a cook - Rii Schroer for The Telegraph
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“The thing about playing such an intimate role with an ex-lover is I did not think he would be able to do it,” declares Juliette Binoche, within minutes of us sitting down to discuss her latest film, a delectable French foodie drama ­co-starring her former partner Benoît Magimel. “Of course,” – she raises an eyebrow – “it was never going to be a problem for me.”

Dressed in a crisp, red blouse and sharply tailored trousers, the 59-year-old Binoche – Oscar, Bafta and César winner, cinematic collaborator of Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Haneke, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Claire Denis – reaches for a plate of jellied fruits and pops one archly into her mouth.

In The Taste of Things, which opens in cinemas on February 14, Magimel appears as a renowned 19th-century gourmet; Binoche plays his live-in cook and sometime paramour. A hit at Cannes last year, where audiences drooled over its loving shots of carré de veau with braised lettuce, it marks the first time the pair have acted together since 1999’s Children of the Century, during the filming of which they embarked on what Binoche describes as a “tough” five-year relationship. Their daughter Hana, now 24, was born shortly after its release. (Binoche also has a 30-year-old son, Raphaël, with André Halle, a scuba diver whom she met during the making of the 1991 film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf.)

When, in 2021, the Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung first approached Binoche for The Taste of Things, she took one look at the script, an adaptation of a novel by the Swiss author Marcel Rouff, and, she says, “I told Hung, ‘Much as I would love to work with you, I don’t have a lot of space here, so perhaps if you really want me, you could just, you know,’” – she smiles sweetly – “‘try to deepen the role a bit.’”

One month later, rewrites duly made, Binoche took the role and filming was scheduled. But the production struggled to pin down a leading man, and with only weeks to go, Magimel was tentatively approached. Binoche recalls “thinking there was no way he would accept. But he did, which made me astonished, but also very happy indeed.”

‘It was strange to feel love between us again’: with Benoit Magimel in The Taste of Things
‘It was strange to feel love between us again’: with Benoit Magimel in The Taste of Things

Even after he’d said yes, all were aware that the shoot might be fraught. Like Binoche, Magimel, 10 years her junior, had once been a shining young light of French ­cinema: at Cannes in 2001, aged 27, he was named best actor for his ­performance opposite Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher. But over the past decade, his tur­bulent personal life has taken a toll. In 2017, following a hit-and-run incident the previous year, he was fined for driving under the influence of drugs, and, in a separate case, sentenced to a three-month suspended prison sentence for ­possession of narcotics.

Yet as soon as the cameras rolled, all was well: more than that, Bin­oche says, the acting process became a “reconciliation”. It was “strange”, she says, “to feel love between us again, after so long, as we spoke those lines on the page. But that also made it easy, too – there was no need for us to intellectualise what was felt.” Once the film was completed, Binoche watched it at home in Paris with her daughter, and afterwards they had a hug and a cry: she, too, had found it strange to see her parents in love again.

Only a month after shooting The Taste of Things, Binoche was back in front of the cameras, this time as Coco Chanel for The New Look, an Apple TV+ series about Paris’s elite fashion houses in the aftermath of the Second World War. It was a far grander production – 10 hour-long episodes, and an international cast, including Ben Mendel­sohn as Christian Dior, Maisie Williams as Dior’s French Resistance-fighter sister Catherine, and Emily Mortimer as Elsa Lombardi, Chanel’s muse.

Chanel herself was a Nazi collaborator, and worked with the Vichy regime for her own professional and personal advancement. This carried an awful resonance for Binoche, since her maternal grandparents on the Polish side of the family were imprisoned at – and survived – Auschwitz: “They took Jewish people into their home and hid them there,” she explains. “They were Polish Catholics and part of the resistance.”

Did that make it more difficult for her to play someone whose instincts ran in the opposite ­direction?

“As an actor, you cannot judge your character like that,” she shrugs. “You have to understand them, give them your humanity; recognise that their weaknesses and strengths are sometimes the same thing. We like to put people into black or white boxes. But really we all contain a little vice as well as virtue, don’t we?”

Juliette Binoche
'Turning 60? It’s much the same as turning 40': Juliette Binoche - Photographed by Rii Schroer at the Londoner Hotel

Making sense of Chanel, she continues, involved revisiting the designer’s childhood: “Her mother died when she was 11, her father abandoned the family not long after; her upbringing was very poor, very tough. When you understand that, you understand the ­survivor in her. It doesn’t forgive her behaviour, but it explains it.”

Paris was where Binoche was born, but she grew up on the move. Her parents divorced when she was four, and her childhood was split between brief stays with her mother and father – both actors who travelled with work – and a Catholic boarding school on the outskirts of the capital. Her maternal grandmother also now lived in France, where she worked as a cook, and Binoche fondly recalls the baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables she would bring back from the local Sunday market.

Preparing for The Taste of Things made her reflect on the role played by food in her early life. She remembers her mother cooking for her and her sister, the photographer Marion Stalens, “and even though they were simple dishes, there was always a twist, a little additional gesture that strengthened the family bond”. Her favourite was poule au pot: chicken in a savoury broth, which her mother often made at Christmas. “No dish has ever moved me to tears,” she says. “But this one always warms my heart.”

“I have just come from America, where nobody cooks, everyone orders [in],” she shudders. Convenience is all well and good, she says, “but it makes me fear we are losing the way of thinking about cooking as an act of love”.

How does she think British cuisine compares to France’s own? “You certainly eat fewer vegetables than we do,” she says, a little sternly. “I am always surprised here that you think of the potato as a vegetable.” When I point out that the potato is indeed a vegetable, Bin­oche is unmoved. “For me, it is not,” she replies coolly. “It is a potato.”

She herself is a keen amateur cook and enjoyed the expert tutoring she received while filming The Taste of Things to ensure that her quenelles were perfectly scooped. The film’s chief culinary adviser was Pierre Gagnaire, head chef at Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and Sketch in London, both ­garlanded with three Michelin stars.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Juliette Binoche starring opposite Daniel Day-Lewis
The Unbearable Lightness of Being:starring opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in 1988 - AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

Binoche left school at 15 to study acting at Paris’s prestigious Conservatoire – but left there early, too, in order to tour Europe with a ­theatre troupe, which led in turn to small roles on television and in film. When she was 21, Godard cast her in Hail Mary, an erotic psychological drama about a modern-day virgin birth, but it was in André Téchiné’s 1985 film Rendez-vous, about a sexually adventurous young aspiring actress, that she caught the world’s eye at Cannes.

That unlocked things, and there followed an extraordinary career first act: a two-film collaboration with her then-lover, the avant-garde director Leos Carax; a starring role opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being; the enigmatic lead in Kieślowski’s luminous Three Colours: Blue; then The English Patient alongside Ralph Fiennes, which took her to Hollywood and brought her that Academy Award.

She was nominated again, four years later, for the romantic comedy Chocolat, in which she starred opposite Johnny Depp as a sort of foxy Wonka, weaving a chocolatey spell over a sleepy Burgundian village – though not over the French critics, who greeted the film with disdain.

Juliette Binoche in Chocolat (2000)
Juliette Binoche in Chocolat (2000) - Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

“At the time, I was so paranoid,” she tuts, adding with a sigh of mock melodrama, “The critics, they no longer love me! But I think they felt the film was not artistic enough for a French actress to be making for the Americans. It was too…,” – she pulls a face – “… mainstream.”

Previously, it hadn’t occurred to her that she’d have to engage with such high-flown concerns; her ­parents’ own careers had made acting look about as glamorous as fruit-picking. It was transient, seasonal work that frequently meant, as a teenager, she was left to her own devices: “I was often in Paris by myself when I was 13, 14, 15 years old,” she says, “always ­burrowing into galleries, cinemas and museums.”

That delving spirit endures, and is partly why Binoche is so wildly pleasurable to watch: her curiosity is always shining through, whether while throwing herself into some unexpected new gambit – a supporting role in Godzilla, a live dance production, a documentary about pandemics – or in her more familiar mode as grande dame du cinéma.

“Turning 60? It’s much the same as turning 40,” she shrugs. “I feel able to keep taking risks because life usually teaches me what I need to make them pay off. Sometimes I find myself saying yes to a project and wondering how I’m going to be able to do it. But it’s like a labyrinth. You just have to walk through the entrance and find your way.”


The Taste of Things opens in ­cinemas on Feb 14. The first three episodes of The New Look will be released on Apple TV+ on the same day

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