Honorary Awards for Juliette Binoche & Agnès Varda

in 67th Locarno International Film Festival

by Peter Kremski

Locarno’s Excellence Award for outstanding achievement in acting is in its tenth year now. Previous winners of the award include such luminaries as John Malkovich, Susan Sarandon, Charlotte Rampling and Isabelle Huppert. This year’s winner, Juliette Binoche, is in fine company. The French star has come to stand for European auteur cinema, and set her sights on a world career from the beginning. Her memorable work includes well-known titles like The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1987), The Lovers on the Bridge (Les amants du Pont-Neuf) (1991), The English Patient (1996) and Chocolat (2000). Her on-screen partners have included such distinguished actors as Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons, Ralph Fiennes, William Hurt, Richard Gere and Johnny Depp.

Binoche has already won plenty of awards, starting with her first leading role in André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous (1984) for which she received the Romy Schneider Award for best young actress and promising new talent, and was honoured with standing ovations at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985. She was celebrated as the discovery of the year and the new great hope of French cinema. The 20-year-old Juliette Binoche acted with a passionate intensity and uninhibited physicality which would become her key characteristics. The role was completely appropriate to her: she played a young actress in Paris at the start of her career — ambitious and hungry for life. She was so believable in her role that the audience imagined her to be the same in reality.

Her next film was The Night Is Young (Mauvais sang) (1985), directed by Leos Carax, not much older than herself and a leading figure of the French enfants terribles at the time. She became his life companion and worked with him again on another film project: The Lovers on the Bridge which, because of difficult circumstances, was only completed in 1991, after three years of shooting. Binoche played a young painter gradually losing her eyesight, living on and under the bridges of Paris, involved in a romance among homeless people far from her previous conventional life. For this incredibly intense role she received the European Film Award. After their success with this film, Binoche and Carax split, professionally and personally, but Binoche went on to start her world career. At 23, she shot her first English language movie, appropriately set in a European context. With The Unbearable Lightness of Being, director Philip Kaufmanimmediately offered her the opportunity to play the female lead in a big and ambitious American production. About ten years later, for her role in another American movie, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient,she received an Academy Award (“Oscar”) as well as her second European Academy Award. Four years later, her leading role in the American production Chocolat earned her a second Academy Award nomination. Binoche is now a celebrated star of the international film world and considered one of the greatest actresses of all time.

One of the other greatest actresses of all time is one of Binoche’s idols: Anna Magnani, leading actress of Italian Neorealism, experienced in Hollywood and a winner of Oscars like Binoche herself. In Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (2009), Binoche consciously tried to imitate every facet of Magnani’s extraordinary acting. For Binoche, Magnani is an idol because she is such a “splendid female”, who is “full of a vital energy” and at the same time “incredibly fragile” and therefore permanently “torn between her tremendous power and her cries of despair”. This is a statement by Binoche herself, quoted from a film documentary that her sister Marion Stalens made about her. For her Magnani-inspired performance in Certified Copy, Binoche was again honoured with Best Actress, this time at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010.

Certified Copy was one of three films shown at the Locarno Film Festival in honour of Binoche. The second was Clouds of Sils Maria (Sils Maria) (2013), her most recent film, now on release. Here again her role is that of an actress, as it was at the beginning of her career in Rendez-vous. But this time it is not the role of a young actress just starting out, professionally and personally, but that of an established actress and mature woman confronted with getting older and the menacing rivalry of younger women — though 50-year-old Juliette Binoche looks as beautiful as ever. There is a hidden connection between these two films, as the director of Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas, was co-writer of the earlier Rendez-vous.

The third film shown in Locarno was Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue (Trois couleurs: Bleu) (1993), for which Binoche finally received a César, the highest-ranking film award in France, having previously been nominated eight times. Binoche herself considered this film the greatest challenge of her career. Kieslowski tried to get quite close to her; she had to allow the camera to always be in very close proximity, urgently trying to look behind her face and deep into her soul. “It really started to get very intimate”, she says in conversation with her sister. “I had to drop myself, that was the only way. Then he could film me however he wanted.”

Kieslowski did not want her to be “the Binoche” everybody knows. He did not want the passionate actress who is not afraid to show all her feelings. She was not allowed to show anything: no tears, no feelings, no motion, just calmness and tranquillity. She remembers how difficult it was for her to act in that way. The audience was only allowed to sense her unwept tears and hidden feelings. That was, she believes, her greatest performance.

Locarno’s most respected honorary award is the so-called Leopard of Honour which is attributed to great figures in contemporary auteur cinema, in most cases a director who has set new creative standards in filmmaking. Previous winners include French directors Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard and Leos Carax; German filmmakers Werner Schroeter, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog; American directors Samuel Fuller, Sydney Pollack and William Friedkin; Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci; the Briton, Ken Loach; and Iranian Abbas Kiarostami. This year the Leopard of Honour was awarded to Belgian-born Agnès Varda, 86 years young, the still active grande dame of the Nouvelle Vague who is probably the most acclaimed female director in film history.

Unlike Godard, Truffaut and other French New Wave filmmakers, Agnès Varda never found her inspiration in film criticism or the world of cinema. In her eyes, this was an advantage. She hardly knew movies and was not influenced by the views and visions of other directors. That made it possible for her to advance filmmaking in a very naive, free, and independent way, but also a very daring one. Instead of being influenced by cinema, Agnès Varda found her inspiration in the world of photography, and it shows in her films, with their remarkable photographic quality and very special sense of composition. “I was a photographer”, she says, “and that’s what I’ve been ever after. That has always been my way to look at things.”

In 1954, at the age of 26, she shot her first full-length feature film, La Pointe Courte. The title is the name of a fishing village which the film uses as a contrast to the metropolitan city of Paris. The story the film tells mirrors this contrast by showing us a married couple whose conflicts derive from these different cultural backgrounds. The young husband is played by Philippe Noiret in his first screen role, and the film’s editor was Alain Resnais.

The settings of Varda’s French films (she also shot films in the USA) are either Paris or provincial villages, where her heart is. Again and again, images of the sea and its beaches appear in her films, seeming to express her most personal yearnings. The Beaches of Agnès (Les plages d’Agnès) is the title of one of her later works, a self-portrait which she made in 2008. This film takes us on a walk through her life, returning to all the beaches that were important to her.

The landscapes in her films are not in the service of plot. Agnès Varda visualizes a landscape the way a painter depicts a still life. She uses the landscape as a “nature morte”, often employing an impressionist light, inspired by the painter Claude Monet. If humans appear in this scenery, then she looks at them as models and depicts them as figures in a landscape.

Most important to her is her subjective view. She does not believe in one truth. Therefore she distrusts a pretended objective documentary approach. Her own films erase boundaries and mingle documentary and fiction. Her films are full of contradictions. But she makes the expression of sensations and perceptions her prime task as an artist.

During the Nouvelle Vague inspired sixties she completed such well-known films as Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) (1961) and Le Bonheur (1964). For The Creatures (Les créatures) (1966) she was able to attract stars like Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, and Andy Warhol’s Viva became the star of her American-based Lions Love (1968).

Cleo from 5 to 7, The Creatures and Lions Love were shown alongside six of Agnès Varda’s other films to honour her at Locarno Film Festival. The selected films spanned 1961 to 2011.

Among the other films shown in Locarno was Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) (1985), Varda’s most successful film, which earned her the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It is the story of a young girl turning her back on society, escaping from the conventions of an established life, making her way across the country as a vagabond, and ending up extremely lonely. 18-year-old leading actress Sandrine Bonnaire received standing ovations at the Venice Film Festival in 1985 and subsequently received the César for Best Leading Actress. It is a happy coincidence that Bonnaire achieved national stardom in the same year as the 20-year-old Juliette Binoche…

Edited by Alison Frank