In a New Zealand exclusive, ALEXANDER BISLEY talks to Juliet Binoche about Haneke, Hou and being Tom Cruise’s chick. Illustration by LYNDON BARROIS.

DESCRIBED as “the leading European actress of her generation” (The Guardian, among others) and one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World and Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time (as per People and Empire), Juliette Binoche enjoys a formidable reputation. The iconic Parisian affectionately dubbed “La Binoche” is pegged an ice queen by some journalists. She swiped a bothersome Aussie journalist in Berlin 2004: “I don’t know. Was it always obvious you’d be a bitch?” When I interrupt her well-deserved Greek holiday for a short interview, she is reasonably friendly, serious and good-humoured. “Sorry,” she giggles modestly about a small delay (mediated by an unidentified male), “I’ve just got up.”

A Few Days in September, a cynical, enjoyable thriller set in Paris and Venice during the days leading up to September 11, 2001 occasions my call. Binoche’s year has involved more than this and Paris, Je T’Aime (and Breaking and Entering in New Zealand). 2007’s Cannes Film Festival saw the acclaimed premiere of Taiwanese titan Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon. Also coiled for release are Dan in Real Life, a romantic comedy with Steve Carell; Paris, from The Spanish Apartment’s Cédric Klapisch; and Amos Gitai’s Disengagement, about the Palestine-Israel snafu. Binoche is currently working on Olivier Assayas’ Summertime and then Iranian Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. Being so busy it must be nice to be on holiday? “Yeah,” she tenders with a throaty, sensual laugh, “It’s true I’ve been working a lot. There are periods like this as an actress. You work a lot and then for a while you don’t work. It’s a combination of very active times and some others where you have more time to read, be with your kids. Mostly I feel like when I’m not shooting I’m in preparation time. It’s about observing, watching people, hearing things. It’s like you’re a sponge that tapes. And the shooting is actually just when you give it out somehow, all the feelings, the things you felt.” Binoche’s words have the elegance of those cheekbones and piercing acuity of those brown eyes.

She has repeatedly turned down Hollywood productions, most notably Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. “I would rather play a dinosaur than one of the humans in that film,” she said in 1993. Her alternative choice was Krzysztof Kieslowski’s towering Three Colours trilogy, particularly Blue, where she starred as widow Julie Vignon.

Binoche has frequently rejected roles like Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible chick. “The woman is more of an object than a subject,” she proclaims, “the women in those [genre of] films, I don’t like them. It makes me uncomfortable,” she discretely snacks her breakfast.

“It’s a character I’ve never played before, a secret agent. I’ve never read [anything] like this before,” she enthuses about writer-director Santiago Amigorena’s A Few Days in September script. Irene, Binoche’s agent, is a feisty, impressive character. “Even though she doesn’t understand everything what’s going on, there’s something of her that is conducting, she’s not just a beautiful object to watch.” She was very touched by Irene dangerous dedication to connecting Nick Nolte’s spook with his two children. A secret agent’s mission often necessitates inhumanity and separating from your being. “I liked the humanity she’s trying to find.”

Since her first classic role as Tereza in 1986’s anti-Communist The Unbearable Lightness of Being, freedom and humanity, politics and ideas, have coursed through Binoche’s work. Well-known here for lesser works Chocolat and The English Patient (and as the face of Lancôme), Binoche’s worked with most of the big French directors since Jean Luc-Godard cast her as Juliette in 1985’s Hail Mary, reportedly after a vivacious nude audition.

The 43-year-old mother-of-two remains her own woman. “I’ve been asked several times if I’d marry – two times at the start of relationships, and two times at the end,” she told Ms London magazine. “And I didn’t say ’non’. I just didn’t answer them.”

Intuitive Binoche agrees there are similarities between A Few Days in September and Michael Haneke’s provocative Hidden (Caché), one of the most riveting films screened in New Zealand in 2006. “I liked the political reflection. Also, it’s a puzzle, it’s not too giving at all the first time, you have to try and understand throughout the film and I liked that very much... When we watch the news we’re not involved somehow. We don’t have enough time in order to get inside and be transformed by it.” Good films can lend enough time and space to be immersed in matter-subject-problem-understanding; the dark theatre can “let it all go” and allow an intimacy between you and the film, Binoche says.

I ask how was it working with the painstaking Austrian Haneke, occasioning another throaty chuckle. She praises his “Xray” insight on Code Unknown, his rare understanding of actors’ mind, heart and body.

She admiringly compares Haneke’s precision complexity setting up a take with a spaceship launch. She’s prefers the freedom Hou Hsiao-hsien allows. Haneke loosened up with Hidden, but “he’s a control freak” Binoche concludes, that lilting laugh again.

» Illustration by Lyndon Barrois.

A Few Days in September premieres nationally at the Telecom New Zealand International Film Festivals this July and August. Screening details are available online at