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In Patrice Leconte’s new film, La Veuve de Saint-Pierre, JULIETTE BINOCHE plays one of French history’s anonymous, everyday heroines, she explains in this conversation about her role and the film.

You often play very passionate women. How do you choose your films?
I have to feel passionate about the theme of the film. There must be a spark, it must have something that fires my imagination, makes me question things. Like molecules respond to heat, I have to find myself responding to the script in the same way. I like to feel that kind of disturbance when I read. If I don't, then the script just becomes oppressive. I like to begin things lightly, especially if the theme of the film is itself quite intense, quite passionate.

Is it important to forget being an actress and be simply a reader?
The two are inseparable. As a reader and an actress I have to be absolutely convinced by the work. I'm always aware of my past, present and future as an actress, as a woman, as a mother, a child, a grandmother. All of these facets of my identity are always in play and they shape my experience. My role depends upon how I perceive the production. I have to be able to imagine the past, present and future of the story. Understanding how something may develop is crucial for the 'artist' who has to enter the world of the film. You become involved with something that goes beyond you.

What was your first impression when you read the screenplay of La Veuve de Saint-Pierre?
I thought it was very good. I remember having read it on a plane and having been immediately interested by a story which appears to be simple but is, in fact, much more complex. The film raises the kind of questions that you ask yourself all the time. Questions about who has responsibility for our laws. Who decides on whether a man should live or die? Where do these powers come from? Because of the value I place on human life, the death penalty is unacceptable to me. It seems more humane and forward-thinking to imprison people and offer them some kind of intervention, than condemn them to death. People's crimes are to some extent caused by problems that transcend the individual.

Who is Madame La?
Her name is well-deserved. "To me, it is not "Madame la Capitaine", it's Madame La. She is someone who is just there *. She has this impulsive side, she wants to be able to change everything around her, immediately. Her education, and the fact that her family is influential, does not prevent her from disregarding conventions. This is who she is, she's not premeditated, her impulsiveness is much stronger than she is. This is what I like about her character. She is a positive woman, in spite of everything that happens to her. ..People are going to accuse me again of always playing tragic women. However, I play women who resist tragedy, even if they are in the thick of it. Madame La discovers her strength through this ordeal. Her status as a captain's wife is important to her, but she is ready to forego it in order to change people's attitudes, to prevent errors of judgement or to fight prejudice. Where there is redemption, there is hope.

* a play on words between the French article 'la' meaning 'the' and the French adverb 'la' meaning 'there'.

Madame La is an anonymous heroine, the kind of woman whose name does not make the history books, and yet...
Many women share the same fate. ..and this was especially true during this period. At school, only very few women's names are ever mentioned, 'George Sand, Marie Curie. ..And yet there were so many of these 'everyday heroines'. Zola talks about this in 'L' OEuvre', describing a woman who poses for the artist, who earns enough to keep the man, who looks after the children... Women like this allow artists to flourish, they are their foundations. Without the cornerstone there would be no house, no skyscraper.

Madame La wants the convicted man to be pardoned.
The important question is whether a man has the right to a second chance. This is cultural. In Cambodia, even after everything that has happened, there is still a culture which pardons more easily. It is still possible to begin again, to have a second chance, to be reborn. In the West, once something is broken, it is much more difficult to mend it.

The film also deals with the idea of guilt.
One of the things that interested me about the film was its investigation of the idea of charity. I completely understand the desire to help other people, and have done work for a charity, but these acts of charity also satisfy our need to feel less guilty about our own privileges, about what we gain from things. We must act as individuals, since politicians won't act, and what we do is only a drop in the ocean, but all of these drops together are what makes the ocean. During the shoot, one of the directors of a charity was accused of some nefarious goings-on and that completely threw me. I realised that this kind of organisation is perfect for people who want to profit from other people's integrity, or from people's suffering, from children, orphans living in developing countries. Suddenly there was something ironic about the role. It made me think again about the meaning of the film. You have to be careful not to be taken in: actions and words that seem genuine are often not.

The film begins with a slow tracking shot of Madame La. The impression given is that your story is very painful.
She has met her destiny, her two men have been forced away from her, and she has forced herself away from them. Her suffering is bound up with her doubt about why she has had to go through all this. But she knows that she could not have done things differently. Madame La is torn between absolute certainty and continual self-doubt. Her certainty, her faith, have nothing to do with religion. There is something beyond us, that pushes us and makes us act, makes us react. Her conviction is something beyond reasoning. I like it when Madame La says "To Hell with your idea of goodness!" because she is not a good woman, she's a woman who needs a sense of justice, justice on a human scale. Not a justice that absolves us of responsibility.

Was what you've just said about her the basis for your rehearsal in character?
Yes, I wanted her to be a forceful presence. The fact that she can't have children was also an important consideration in building the character. Her lack of dependents means that she completely identifies with her husband. I also did some reading about Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, because I like this kind of research, but the film didn't require a particularly heavy reading list. We were shooting in extreme temperatures, in minus 30°C. I was more concerned by how I would act with a frozen face, how I would say my lines when I couldn't move my lips. Or how I could warm myself up enough to pay attention! Everyone on the crew was so well wrapped-up that I could only recognise people by what colour anorak or scarf they were wearing!

There have been quite a few occasions when you nearly worked with Daniel Auteuil. And now you are finally together.
We knew each other a little through other projects and we did begin a film together once. There was something funny about the way that our paths would cross but never stay close for very long. Patrice Leconte's energy and speed, his involvement with what he does, creates a really good mood on set. His playfulness is infectious. And because Daniel isn't really someone who likes to be over-serious, the atmosphere was lovely.

What is it like working with such different actors as Daniel Auteuil and Emir Kusturica?
Daniel is a man who has very strong attachments to women. This makes him very generous, patient and kind. When we did our first reverse-shots, Emir was acting out my reactions for me. He was desperate to direct. I thought I was talking to Neel and I'd have Emir in front of me! Then he started to really enjoy the acting and, well, you can see the result in the film. He's fantastic.

What about Patrice Leconte . . . ?
There's something very immediate about him, he gets very quickly to the heart. Sometimes I like to wander off and find new paths through things. Patrice plunges ahead. He's very aware of what's important and what isn't, which makes filming with him really reassuring and enjoyable.

Published 12/10/2000

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Juliette Binoche


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