Juliette Binoche has impeccable taste. The French actress, who has been gracing the screen for over four decades, continues to work with directors that push the envelope regardless of budget, recognition, or box office. From Claire Denis to Olivier Assayas, Abbas Kiarostami to Leos Carax, the list goes on and on. Her eye for world cinema rarely falters, and her filmography ranges across a wide swath of genres. The most common aspect of all of these films: critical praise for Binoche’s performance, whatever it may be.

In her newest, Trần Anh Hùng’s The Taste of Things, Binoche’s first collaboration with the Vietnamese-born director, she plays Eugénie, a chef for a famous restaurant owner, Dodin. A sensual film, featuring lengthy cooking sequences that grasp one’s attention far more than many action set pieces in today’s age, the story follows Eugénie and Dodin’s relationship through food, the creation of dishes, and the pleasure of a good meal. They hold onto one another, the feelings of love, respect, and geniality mixing together, a knowing warmth between. 

Binoche’s real-life former partner, Benoît Magimel plays Dodin, the first time the pair have collaborated in 25 years. The two actors have a daughter from their time together, creating a measure of initial trust and vulnerability within these roles. As is now expected, both are tremendous in The Taste of Things, a vehicle for their own bond just as much as the characters’ bond. The words in Hùng’s script take on more than contained cinematic meanings. 

Binoche demands attention when she fills up the screen. Often, her face carries the weight of her characters. Her performances never feel over-the-top, rather, she opts for a quiet subtlety, her smile and laugh taking on extra significance. In Hùng’s drama, the idea of freedom rests within her. She imbues the food she makes with such creativity and liveliness, and they have this fine-tuned collaboration. They know each other with such intimacy, the way that only two partners can, seen by the absolute beauty of the food that they put onto the table. The Taste of Things ends up being about sacrifice, about letting go, about giving the person that you love a specific kind of happiness, despite the inevitability of things ending. 

Ahead of the film’s U.S. release, Binoche and I discussed the creation in this film and so many of her others, the similarity between cooking and acting, and the difficult, necessary act of being original. 

The Film Stage: Your character holds onto and seems to always be thinking about this idea of freedom. How did you approach freedom in Eugénie’s life, especially with the simple idea of leaving a door locked or unlocked? 

Juliette Binoche: I see it in her commitment to her work. That gives her freedom: the fact of embodying her need of cooking, her need of giving, her need of this recognition of what she’s here for. That skill she has and wants to transform this food into something so sublime. Related to her partner, it means a lot to her, and I think she finds freedom in it. It seems that she would be a prisoner in a kitchen. No, you can judge from the outside like this, but actually I believe that it’s her way to participate in the world and to give purpose to her life. 

Now, closing a door, opening a door, being true to your own needs or desires. And that’s what we should do, and also the fact that she doesn’t want to rise into a higher rank of society. She doesn’t want to get married to be with the king of the castle. She just wants to be her own person. And she gets engaged probably because she knows it’s the end and she knows so much that he wants to realize that dream. She allows it, but that’s what I like about this character actually. From outside, she seems to be in labor all the time and exhausted because she’s working long hours and cooking requires a lot of work, a lot of time. I liked to see that there’s a contradiction. 

Do you think that reluctance to rise into that higher rank plays into her decision to rarely eat with her partner and his friends? Her decision not to eat in the dining room? 

Imagine, as an actor, if you propose to sit down and watch the film, or actually be in front of the camera. You cannot be here and there. When you are here you really need to be present and do the best you can while you can. So I totally understand that. No, actually––this, for me, there was a big parallel between our work as actors. When we’re acting, we incarnate our matter into an intention, our feelings into thoughts. The analogy I liked is that Benoît’s character is the thinker. He writes down what he’s thinking that might go together. But he’s not sure because he needs this cook in order to make it real, and she knows how to do it. And at the time, the cook knew how to make things. It was not explained in recipes. You needed to have some knowledge, some background as a cook in order to make it a reality.

You mentioned the difference between being in front of the camera acting and sitting down to watch the film. Do you rarely watch your movies? When was the last time you watched this film?

I watched it twice. Once in Cannes, because I had seen another screening, but it was not the final cut. So the real film, I saw it in Cannes, and then afterwards I saw it again. Somewhere when I was traveling somewhere. Because we’re traveling too much, way too much. But I wanted to see it again because I hadn’t seen it for a while.

Many people have been asking about your relationship with Benoît. And I’ve read in interviews that you’ve given, you’ve said that you were able to speak through feelings using the dialogue in the film. How do you keep all of those feelings, all of those emotions from overwhelming you? How do you balance them within the film?

When you have feelings as actors, you are very happy because then you have something. If it’s only words you’ve learned, then it’s an intellectual exercise. It becomes boring. It becomes technical, and the audience doesn’t receive as much. So you want to be full. When you act––I mean with my understanding of acting––you have to empty yourself in order to disappear, to make other things come through. But the feelings you have, the sensations you have, they have to fill you up. But you are making room for something else to happen. 

And that’s why you can call it “creation.” Because there’s a kenosis, there’s a way of pulling back in order for something to come up. Really, it’s like a wave. So there’s an empty moment or silence you get. I put myself into silence because I need that time to retreat. So I’m being revealed by the scene. It’s not really me doing it. It’s allowing something else to happen. And then it becomes more interesting to me because it’s more subtle. It’s more intriguing. It’s unknown. This mystery happens. I’m surprised, every time, how it’s going because I don’t know in advance how it’s going to be. That’s why it’s so interesting, because each take is another you put your heart into the cutting board.

You have to be so vulnerable in this role, especially working with Benoît after all of this time. How do you access that vulnerability––especially in more intimate scenes, like those in the bedroom? 

I believe I’m more nude in other scenes. There’s really no comparison to me.

Because the emotional vulnerability is so much higher. 

Absolutely. That’s when you show your hidden side. You show your heart. You are really showing love––or however you want to call it, because love is a very general word. But there are many ways of loving, of course. 

You mentioned creation earlier and it’s an idea that has popped up often through your films over the years. I was thinking specifically of Certified Copy. In this film, there’s an idea of creating a new dish. Can you talk a bit about this idea of creation, this idea of originality in the films that you have made? And about making something that’s wholly unique?

The only reference you have, as a human being, is your sensibility. The truth of your being is related to that sensibility. So you’ve got to speak through your heart of what is important to you, and being able to depict, to clarify what you’re feeling and what you need. Then you’re close to being yourself, being an original. I don’t think that you can find it in another way. Not in an outside way, but in an inside way. And your feelings are related to your truth, and what you can call as being your truth is your originality. Because if you’re trying to be original outside, I think it will always be an illusion. Because you’re projecting something. 

As an actor, what I like, actually, is to dare the unknown. And daring the unknown means that you’ve been working a lot before––you’ve rehearsed or whatever, but you’ve got to let it go. Let go of everything you have––or think you have––and just be in it. And trust it’s gonna come. That’s really being original to me, because otherwise it’s made up. It’s fake. Some are very good at faking. Watching a lot of films, I’ve said, “Wow, he knows the deal. He knows how to do the accent, he knows how to behave.” You see that as a filmmaker, as an actor, and as a DP. But being daring requires less bullshit.

The Taste of Things opens in limited release on February 9 and expands wide on February 14.

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