“It’s so warm in here!” exclaims Juliette Binoche. “You know in (Michael) Haneke’s film, I have a scene where I kind of suffocate and I think that I’m going to die? It feels like that! Do you think you can open the window?”
The grande dame of French cinema has suffered for her art — she nearly drowned during the filming of Leos Carax’s “The Lovers on the Bridge” — but the stuffy hotel room where she’s conducting interviews today has apparently pushed her to the brink.
“The air, for me, it’s vital,” she explains. “We’ve been working in a forest for two months!”
She’s referring to “Vision,” the new film from award-winning director Naomi Kawase. Binoche plays a French essayist, Jeanne, who journeys into the forests of Nara Prefecture to search for a mysterious herb that only appears once every 997 years. Once there, she falls into a relationship with a taciturn ranger, Tomo (Masatoshi Nagase), but it slowly transpires that she’s also mourning the loss of an earlier love.
The project was born at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Kawase’s “Radiance” (“Hikari”) was screening in competition. When the director ended up sat at the same table as French producer Marianne Slot during an official dinner, they started plotting to work together.
Soon enough, Binoche found herself embroiled in the plan. The actress was presenting the Palme d’Or that year, and her speech at the podium made an impression on Kawase.
“I said, ‘Light is love, and movies are made of light,’” she recalls. “And then I said ‘light’ in maybe a dozen different languages, and she was touched by that.”
“Vision” was tailored to suit Binoche’s schedule. When it transpired that she would be available during September and November, Kawase opted to write a story that was split into two halves. The film’s location, deep in the mountains of the director’s native Nara, was chosen partly to satisfy the actress’s eagerness to see rural Japan.
“I was dreaming of going to Japan one day and going outside of the big cities,” she says. “Because when you stay in hotels, doing interviews, you have no real reality. Of course, they give you gifts, and give you wonderful meals in amazing restaurants, but it doesn’t replace the need of knowing people in a place and having the experience of what it is to live in a more traditional way.”
She stayed in temple accommodation for the duration of the shoot and spent her free time exploring the local culture, visiting a soy sauce factory and learning to make washi paper. Having worked everywhere from Colombia to Afghanistan, she says adapting to a Japanese movie set didn’t pose any problems. Only the scheduling came as a shock.
“They shoot very early,” she says. “You wake up at 4 in the morning and get ready to go in the car at 6, and be on set at 6:30 a.m., 7 a.m., and then stop by 2 p.m. That was a surprise to me. Why stop at 2 p.m.? We could stop at 5! But that was the rhythm they liked to have.”
Kawase started out as a documentary filmmaker and is known for the immersive approach she takes with her actors. Nagase mastered basic forestry techniques and spent a week living on location before shooting began. Glamorous screen veteran Mari Natsuki, playing a blind herbalist, goes so deep into her role that she’s nearly unrecognizable.
As Binoche explains: “Naomi is — I almost want to say training her crew to have this silence around actors, or a feeling that the link between reality, everyday life and the filming is like… there’s no seams.”
“That was an experience that I’ve never had,” she continues. “I mean, (with Taiwanese director) Hou Hsiao-hsien a little bit, but with Naomi, she’s really a master of trying to make it smooth, so the actor doesn’t feel like we’re making a movie.”
“Vision” is one of Kawase’s most unabashedly new age films. Binoche’s character theorizes about the role of prime numbers in nature and delivers lines like “Death is part of a long sleep.” The dreamlike cinematography and sound design create a sense that the movie’s forest location is a place where the past and future are as tangible as the present.
“She works more with the spirits than the reality of things,” says Binoche.
At the end of the film (and spoiler-averse readers may want to skip to the next paragraph), it turns out that Jeanne visited the forest decades before and left her newborn child there following the death of the father. It’s a bizarre plot twist, like something out of ancient mythology.
“For (Kawase), that was plausible, and so I followed what she felt,” Binoche says. “But you have also, maybe, to take the film as a fairy-tale as well.”
Asked if she sees any connection between Jeanne and the tragic characters she played in films such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Blue,” she demurs.
“I never compare,” she says. “Maybe you’re right in saying that I’m drawn to a role that has transformation, that goes through her dark side and finds something else at the end. But also, the directors I’m interested in often go to places that are not comfortable, that it needs courage to go to.”
“I try to be free with that, you know,” she continues, “because otherwise you’re stuck with ideas, and you’re making your life out of ideas, and you don’t want that! You have to have the experience of your own life in order to learn, really deep down, what it is to be a human being — and maybe a better human being — by your own experience.”
Next up, Binoche is due to work with another noted explorer of the human condition: recent Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda. Coming after her appearances in the Hollywood versions of “Godzilla” and “Ghost in the Shell,” would it be fair to describe this as the Japan phase of her career?
“It seems to be,” she says with a laugh. “That’s what happens in life: You don’t know what’s coming.”