The French love their beautiful women. When you think of the great French actresses, you get a list of astonishing beauties, including Sandrine Bonnaire, Catherine Deneuve, Marion Cotillard, Isabelle Huppert, Sophie Marceau, etc. These actresses are generally treated well, like royalty, in the French film industry, and they keep getting strong roles well into their 50s and 60s, when most Hollywood actresses are forced to move to television or retire. But there's something odd about these women; many of them have an icy quality. Perhaps they're too high on a pedestal, or too regal. They sometimes lack sensuality or humor. Brigitte Bardot was one exception, and Audrey Tautou is definitely cute, but it's hard to think of French actresses flirting or smiling. (Each time I picture Jeanne Moreau, she's pouting.)

I don't want to make a callous generalization here, so all of this brings me to my point: Juliette Binoche, the happy exception to the rule. She's perhaps one of the most beautiful of all French actresses, and for years, she probably enjoyed the worship of a cult of beauty. She was perfect, porcelain, and quietly skillful. Yet in recent years, she entered her 40s and has softened up a bit, both in appearance and in her reserve. She seems warmer, and more sensual now, much more approachable and lovable. And at the same time, her onscreen performances have also loosened up. She now seems capable of playing inside a moment to such a degree that she's not even acting anymore. She's so comfortable that she brings breath and blood and pulsing life to every moment.

Binoche had a very strong career in the 1980s and 1990s, starting with her breakout role in a Jean-Luc Godard film, Hail Mary (1985), which was known here for stirring up a bit of controversy among the religious right (most of whom, of course, hadn't seen it). She was in Leos Carax's mind-blowing Mauvais sang (1986) -- which showed in the U.S. in 2000 under the title Bad Blood -- and made her English language debut in Philip Kaufman's remarkable The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). Her next film, Carax's masterful swirling, romantic madhouse Les Amants du Pont-neuf (1991), opened in here 2000 under the title The Lovers on the Bridge. She was also in Louis Malle's acclaimed Damage (1992).

She was then the star of the first part of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors Trilogy," Blue (1993), and appeared as that same character in small cameos in the other two films, White (1994) and Red (1994). This was arguably the first time she carried a film alone, and, though the film does rely heavily on her beauty, it's a wonderful achievement, and remains my favorite of the trilogy. By this time Binoche had received five César Award nominations and won for this one, her fifth.

This led to a series of soft, art-house friendly films and costume spectacles, including Peter Kosminsky's Wuthering Heights (1992), Jean-Paul Rappeneau's The Horseman on the Roof (1995, with another César nomination), Chantal Akerman's A Couch in New York (1996), Anthony Minghella's The English Patient (1996), André Téchiné's Alice and Martin (1998), and the worst of the lot, Diane Kurys' The Children of the Century (1999). The English Patient bored my socks off, but it managed to catch on and please just about everyone for about five minutes during Oscar time. The bulk of it is a dead dull romantic flashback between Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, but the really interesting part is in the wraparound sequences, with the burned, scarred Fiennes telling his tragic tale to a pretty nurse (Binoche). Binoche was so captivating in this small role that she managed to snatch an Oscar away from that year's favorite, Lauren Bacall. (I'll never forget her look of astonishment when her name was called.)

The "Noughties" did not start off so well, mostly thanks to that Oscar and the success of the art house movies. They precipitated more of the same. Patrice Leconte's The Widow of St. Pierre (2000) was a message movie about the death penalty, but it was well-directed and delicately told. (It brought yet another César nomination... her seventh.) I can't say the same for Lasse Hallström's icky, awful Chocolat (2000), which rode a wave of Miramax-induced hype and earned her another Oscar nomination. (She lost to Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich.) She teamed up with intense director Michael Haneke for the difficult, powerful Code Unknown (2000), an antidote for her cream-puff movies that no one seemed to notice. John Boorman's In My Country (2004) was yet another message movie; it was so preachy, there was hardly any room for any actual acting.

But then came something surprising, and refreshing, a minor, breezy, enjoyable romantic comedy, Danièle Thompson's Jet Lag (2002). In it, Binoche went kooky and got away with it. She plays a ditsy cosmetics expert just covered in makeup. She becomes involved with a former chef, turned frozen food baron (Jean Reno) after she drops her cell phone down the ladies' loo. They are stranded together during an airline strike, and we get the usual hate-love relationship, but far more focused and layered than the usual Hollywood example. Best of all is the scene in which Binoche emerges from the shower, all that makeup scrubbed off, and just the true essence shining through. Poor Reno is a goner, and so is half the audience. Happily, Binoche received her eighth César nomination.

That comedy seemed to free her, and the years since have yielded a wonderfully brave, rich and varied creative output. There was Scott McGehee and David Siegel's wonderful Bee Season (2005), which received mostly bad notices, mainly because it had been based on a beloved and best-selling book and suffered from preconceived notions. She appeared in Michael Haneke's brilliant, haunting Caché (2005), which was one of the most acclaimed films of the year, although her role is far from the showiest. She then worked with the volatile Abel Ferrara on Mary (2005), about the filming of a new movie about Jesus Christ; like most of Ferrara's recent movies it was barely released in the U.S.

Then came one more attempt at some Oscar gold, working again with Anthony Minghella on Breaking and Entering (2006). But this film was so scattershot, confused and desperate that critics did not bite. At the same time, she made a spy thriller, A Few Days in September (2006), that went straight to DVD (with Binoche brandishing a firearm on the cover!). She came to America for another comedy, though I will never, ever understand why Peter Hedges' bland, dumb Dan in Real Life (2007) got a pass from most people, or how Binoche ever managed to sign on to a movie that also starred Dane Cook. Still, she came out unscathed, and managed to elevate Cook's status for a few minutes. In 2008, she appeared in another comedy-drama, Cédric Klapisch's Paris (2008).

And now we come to Binoche's best role, as "Suzanne," a writer and voiceover actress for a puppet troupe, in Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, which placed near the top of many polls of the best films of 2008. (It was #1 in indieWIRE and #2 in Film Comment.) Here's what I wrote in my review for Cinematical: "Binoche is simply miraculous in this role, working in a more improvisatory method than she is used to. She's like a hummingbird, with wild, blonde Texas housewife hair, and low-cut, leopard-skin tops, barely able to stand still or continue a conversation strand for any length of time. She forgets things and waves her hands around to help straighten her thoughts. She does things spontaneously, like move her piano upstairs so that her son's lessons are more convenient. She allows her downstairs neighbor (also her tenant) to use her stove, but yells at him the next day. Her puppet show -- which includes something about boiling the ocean dry -- suits her personality perfectly."

It's a truly fresh, phenomenal performance, especially stacked up next to that year's Oscar winner, Kate Winslet in the stiff and calculated The Reader. Yet somehow, Binoche managed to repeat it the following year in Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours, which, again, placed at #1 on the indieWIRE poll for 2009. Once again, her performance is so casual and in the moment, it's as if she didn't even notice there was a camera on her. This could likewise have been Binoche's best role, if not for the fact that it's more of an ensemble piece: she plays one of three siblings who must decide what to do with their late mother's beautiful country house, filled with valuable artworks.

This leaves us with the fact that Binoche is currently working with one of the world's greatest living filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami. She appeared for all of about five minutes in his great experimental film Shirin (2008), which simply showed the faces of over 100 women while they watched a melodramatic movie. And she plays the lead in his new film Certified Copy, which premiered at Cannes and has yet to make its way stateside. In other words, Flight of the Red Balloon may be Binoche's best role today, but she's at her absolute peak, and I think there are more "best roles" coming. She has transcended beauty, sex appeal, sensuality, talent, and skill to become very simply one of the great actresses in movies. And she has a great smile.
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