ACTRESS Juliette Binoche has had an Oscar sitting on her sideboard for her performance in The English Patient since 1997; this year, it was joined by the Best Actress Award from the Cannes film festival for Copie Conforme: two brilliant performances, two languages.
Make that three languages, as she also had to speak Italian in the film; the Hollywood Reporter said Binoche displayed “noteworthy gifts as a comedienne, switching effortlessly from English to French and Italian to build a character that is resentful, manipulative and seductive all at once”.
The film nearly never made it into the cinemas: production was delayed for two years and switched its main language from English to French during the hunt for a suitable leading man.
However, Binoche has admitted that she is sometimes confused when acting in English.
She said in an interview in 2006: “When I don’t think about it, it’s okay. When I think about, it’s not so. Some specific words come more to me in English, and it’s very confusing. I remember when I was working in English all the time, and I had to do an interview with French Elle magazine, and I couldn’t make a sentence. I was caught in the middle, not knowing which way to go.”
Perhaps that is why she has consistently turned down the chance to move to Hollywood, saying: “I love France and Paris, and I have my roots here and that’s fine.”
Her first opportunity after her English language debut opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in The Unbearable Lightness of Being in 1988 and the pressure mounted in 1997 when she became the first French actress to win an Oscar in nearly 40 years with The English Patient.
But her response is to bury herself in French movies that interest her, doing work that she feels she can become involved in.
It is a similar motivation that drives Audrey Tautou who, instead of immediately booking a one-way ticket to Los Angeles after the worldwide success of Amélie, headed for the Indonesian jungle to work in a monkey sanctuary.
A brief flirtation with Hollywood for the Da Vinci Code showed the true strength of her acting, and of her English, but she says that she had to learn to act “larger” for the Tom Hanks film.
“French acting is very cerebral and reserved. It was interesting for me and taught me another style of acting that I hadn’t considered before.”
She is content to visit Hollywood, but says: “I wouldn't like to settle there. I like movement, I like surprise. I don’t think about my work in terms of a ‘career’. I have the ambition to try to do very good movies and try to work with great directors and I try to do my best. I feel myself as being more of an artisan than as an actress.”
Prophetic words for the woman who, just months after filming Coco Before Chanel, took over from Nicole Kidman as the face of Chanel No 5, following the likes of Carole Bouquet and Catherine Deneuve as the luxury brand’s featured star.
Being a Bond girl is not the pinnacle of success for an actress, but Bouquet changed the raunchy 007 style with her role in For Your Eyes Only alongside Roger Moore.
Not surprisingly for a former philosophy student at the Sorbonne, she did not buy into the blonde Bond bikini image, and opted instead for a woman with a brain (and a crossbow) as the movie returned more to the roots of the Bond books and away from the stunt-man action sequences.
She later worked with Woody Allen on his New York Stories and has recently played at Les Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris, where English director Peter Brook rules the roost.
Sophie Marceau, who played a French Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion in French, moved from her heavily accented English in Braveheart to a perfectly menacing performance as the Bond villain Elektra King in The World Is Not Enough.
She said, “I speak English well, but with an accent”, and for the Bond film she went through an intensive course with a teacher who helped with her pronunciation.
Marceau sees English as “more a language of acting than French”, but admits that “it is sometimes difficult to act in another language”.
“So, sometimes, when I'm not happy with my performance and I have to think, I will think in English.”
Eva Green’s English accent was learnt at school in Ramsgate after she left France at 17, but still needed a voice coach to perfect the cut-glass accent needed as Bond girl Vesper in Casino Royale.
She said that she worked a lot on her English for the movie, adding: “The studio was a bit worried that I would sound too French. There was a lot of work with the dialect coach.”
Being bilingual is not a one-way street; Juliette Binoche’s co-star in The English Patient, Kristin Scott-Thomas, has made a second career in France. She credits French cinema and society with embracing women as they are: “I don’t think that
French cinema has got a problem with age at all; they like seeing and telling and watching stories about women my age.”