TIFF: Juliette Binoche on Playing Grief and Denial in 'The Wait' (Q&A)

Fabrizio Maltese

The French actress returns in a new film from first-time Sicilian director Piero Messina.

Actress Juliette Binoche has conquered a wide range of roles in her career from comedy to thriller. She returns to a role she knows all too well after her award-winning 1994 turn as a grieving mother in Blue.

In first-time director Piero Messina’s The Wait, we find Binoche as Anna, trying to hold court in a grand Sicilian villa after the death of her son. When his girlfriend Jeanne (Lou de Laage) calls, announcing her unexpected arrival, Anna doesn’t have the heart to tell her the news. The two get to know each other while the painful secret hangs heavy in the air.

Binoche, who could have her pick of directors to work with, was drawn to Messina after watching his Cannes short film Earth. Messina is the former assistant director to Paolo Sorrentino. His stylistic influences can be seen throughout the film from the spinning opening camera sequence in a Sicilian church to a monumental holy march through the small town on Easter. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Binoche on taking a risk on a first-time director, magical thinking and the benefits of walking in the dark.

Why did you take a gamble on a first-time director with The Wait?

‘Pif,’ we say in French, which is slang to say the nose, because you work by intuition. I saw his first short film and I liked his intensity, and I could feel his need of making the film. Also probably because the love between the character and his mother is very strong and ambivalent. He loves her as much as he hates her, and I think there are a lot of ambivalent feelings in this film that I liked. Because playing something contradictory is always interesting for an actor, because in life we always function also with ambivalent feelings. We resist against being desperate. We resist against traumas and all that, so we have a mechanism that allows us to function in the world.

How did you approach playing a role centered around denial?

Well, usually, the denial, you’re not very conscious of it, but our conscience works in a very weird way. We want to carry on. What I like about her is that she’s trying to say the truth. Several times, she’s just about to say it so it’s not a manipulation. I was very worried about that, because for me to keep this girl going, it could be a very dangerous and mean kind of story and I didn’t want it that way. I wanted it to be that this woman is trying very hard, but she denies it, so the magical thinking she’s creating is, ‘No, everything is going to be good. He’s coming tomorrow.’ It’s like a thriller, an emotional thriller. You never know when she’s going to be able to say it. And even in the kitchen, when she’s preparing the Easter lunch you think: ‘OK, this time she’s really going to say it.’ And then she lies again.

How did you prepare for such an intense role?

Actually I did prepare for this film very strongly before starting the shooting, but I didn’t like my prep at all, so I threw everything out. I was preparing with my American coach, but it didn’t work for me. And I was saying that to her as well and she carried on, and then I threw everything away and was like, ‘OK, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing.’ I was in the dark, and it was frightening, but at least walking in the dark is something that brings some kind of interest into it. And so your sensibility is different in that way because when you walk in the dark you don’t know where your foot is going to land. You don’t know what you see on the road, what you discover. So there’s a sort of invention that can happen.

So this film was, for me, taking the risk of not knowing. She’s really protecting herself from grief. It’s very hard to accept that kind of grief, which is the worst one, when losing a child, father and mother. It’s unbearable.

You’ve been in a few films that deal with grief. Was it hard for you to return to this subject?

It took me 20 years to go back to the theme of a mother losing her son. I’ve been offered to do two actually very good films with that theme. I thought I had done Blue and it was a strong experience and you know, the theme was so strong, I didn’t want to go back to it immediately after. I’m not afraid of darkness, because that’s where you find real light. You need to discern in order to really know yourself and then go back to a place of renewal. There’s no real renewal if you don’t roam dark places. That’s the deal in life.

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