Celebrating Berlinale Jury President Juliette Binoche and The Widow of Saint-Pierre, one of her more mainstream films

Baradwaj Rangan

Jan 31, 2019 14:12:13 IST

After Cate Blanchett was named President of the Jury at Cannes last year, another acclaimed actress, Juliette Binoche, is the President of the Jury at this year’s Berlinale. There are many reasons these picks make sense. These are extraordinarily talented actresses. Given the range of filmmakers they have worked with, they surely know their world cinema. Plus, they are big enough names that their being the head of the jury becomes news not just in the New York Times but also People magazine. (And all festivals, let’s face it, can use all the publicity they can get.) But these obvious qualifications apart, could it also be that these festivals are finally trying to keep up with the times? With so much criticism about how women filmmakers are hardly represented in the major lineups, a woman at the head of the jury of the Competitive section certainly shows the festival in a better light.

While I leave you to chew over that, let’s look at what Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick said: “I’m very pleased that Juliette is president of the 2019 international jury. The festival shares a strong connection with her....” It’s a strong connection, indeed. Binoche’s first collaboration with Leos Carax, Mauvais Sang (The Night is Young, 1986) was a Competition selection at the 1987 Berlinale. Her second collaboration with Carax, Les amants du Pont-Neuf (The Lovers On The Bridge, 1991), screened in the Forum section at the 1992 Berlinale. In 1993, the year of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue), Binoche was awarded the Berlinale Camera (a “tribute to personalities and institutions that have made a unique contribution to film and to whom the festival feels especially close”).

Apart from other screenings at various sections at the Berlinale — Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat (2000), John Boorman’s Country Of My Skull (2004), Małgorzata Szumowska’s Elles (2012), Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), Isabel Coixet’s Nadie quiere la noche(Endless Night, 2015) — Binoche’s biggest achievement came when she won the Silver Bear (Best Actress) for The English Patient. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, if you consider the same role won Binoche the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. But then, Binoche is Binoche. She is, after all, the first actress to be honored at all three top European festivals. In addition to the Silver Bear at the Berlinale, she’s won Best Actress at Venice (for Trois Couleurs: Bleu) and Cannes (for Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy).

Binoche has worked with so many hall-of-fame art-house names that it’s important to remember she’s done a lot of mainstream fare as well -- like Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of Saint-Pierre. She plays Pauline, the wife of an army captain (Daniel Auteuil), and the story, set in the mid-1800s, kicks off when a killer named Néel (the Serbian director, Emir Kusturica) is imprisoned on the grounds around Pauline’s house. In a plot point that could just as easily lend itself to farce, the small island of the title has no guillotine, and Néel has to wait for one to arrive from elsewhere. Meanwhile, Pauline puts him to work. She wants a garden.

We want to know why. Is this one of those films where, a half-hour in, we will find Pauline thrashing around in bed with Néel? Fortunately, no. Néel himself is curious about Pauline’s motives. Why is she so kind? She says, “Because… people always change. People can be evil one day, and good another. They change. And I am sure of that.” The others in the island complain that Néel is not under lock and key, but they know Pauline. “Her heart is driven by her passions,” one of them says. “Let us hope her passions won’t drive her too far.” But this open-heartedness is exactly what her husband loves about her. The director said he wanted to shoot “a big melodrama, a film that would be a really novelistic film. Tragic. But obviously on condition that it would be with dignity, that it would be a very beautiful story.”

The French critics tore the film apart, though not as churlishly as Gérard Depardieu, who, in 2010, said of Binoche, “I would really like to know why she has been so esteemed for so many years. She has nothing. Absolutely nothing!” But American critics were kinder, at least when it came to Binoche. In Time, Richard Corliss said she was “especially subtle and radiant” and Wesley Morris, in SFGate, called the film’s tears “unmistakably real. Most of them are wept by Juliette Binoche, whose devastation seems induced by actual heartbreak as opposed to glycerol.” Now, consider Kieślowski’s direction to Binoche in Blue, for a character who loses a husband and a child in an accident. “No tears. Never any tears.” From this end of the emotional spectrum to that end, Binoche has done it all.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Jan 31, 2019 14:12:13 IST