If words and pictures went to war in Juliette Binoche's head, it wouldn't be hard to predict a winner.
"I'm genuinely more a visual person. I went into drawing early on," says the Paris-born Binoche. Movie audiences, in fact, would have seen her artwork in The Lovers on the Bridge, the 1991 love story in which she starred as a young painter going blind. Words and Pictures, the new romance with Clive Owen in which Binoche plays a high-school art teacher with severe arthritis, also features her paintings. Her work has been featured in a number of galleries. So we know she has a way with a brush.
But there's something else: "Words were my fear, my shame, and my anger."
When Binoche was only four years old, she explains, her parents divorced, and she and her older sister Marion were sent to boarding school. For years, they rarely saw their parents. "I didn't go to school at the same time, exactly, as my peers, so I was always a little behind," she says. When called to read out loud in class, "I was terrified."
"I felt diminished by the system. And I had to work through my fear and my emotions in order to love words. Choosing to be an actress was like a huge thing."
She adds: "It's such an interesting subject, because as an actress you are visual, but you are words too. It's about being – being combines everything. In fact, some acting teacher you meet will say, 'Start with words, they are the centre of your attention,' and others will say, 'Start with memories, the gut – [out of which] come the words.' It's a dilemma that I have to go through all the time. It's like life."
In Words and Pictures, which opens Friday, Binoche's character, Dina Delsanto, is drawn into a battle with Owen's Jack Marcus, a one-time literary star who has spent more time lately at the bar than at the typewriter. When she arrives at the private school where he holds court, Marcus challenges her to an odd duel: She is to pick a subject and execute a painting on the theme, and he will write a 1,000-word essay on the same theme. Whoever produces the more persuasive piece of work, wins. (Spoiler alert: This being a romance, it doesn't really matter who wins.)
Sitting here with Binoche, in the booth of a restaurant in downtown Toronto that has been commandeered for a series of interviews on the morning after the film's world premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, words sometimes do seem to fail her. (To be fair, she had flown in only the previous day from the set of a film she was shooting in Germany. It had been a flurry since then: of red carpet, paparazzi, a gala screening at Roy Thomson Hall, party, and a 2 a.m. bedtime assisted by some homeopathic No-Jet-Lag pills someone had found for her.) "You have to say no to words in order to have them real," she says at one point. Then she smiles, and says: "I don't know how to explain that."
But while she may sometimes have difficulty finding the right word, there is much less anxiety associated with speaking English than you might expect. "Learning another language was very interesting, because I had to reinvent myself. I started building and creating a new being inside of me," she says. "So, somehow, I feel acting in English is more pleasurable."
One of the themes Words and Pictures explores is the need for mid-career artists to find new ways to work: While Owen's character has a crippling case of writer's block, Binoche's is literally crippled. If she wants to keep expressing herself, she must reinvent herself.
For Binoche, the experience had some echoes in her 2008 collaboration with the British choreographer Akram Khan, in-i, a two-person dance that traced the passionate rise and slow dissolution of a romantic relationship.
"When I did the dance show, I was facing that my body was not a dancer's body: 'How do I invent myself in order to keep up [with Khan]?'" she asked. "I think my strength is my relation of emotion into movement. The pianist knows how to relate the keyboard to himself. So I thought: I have to find my way as an actor, becoming a dancer." She and Khan toured the piece to Australia and New York, among other centres.
And now, in a few hours' time, Binoche would be back on a plane to Germany, where she was in the midst of shooting Clouds of Sils Maria for French director Olivier Assayas. "There's a lot of dialogue in English. I've never had that much dialogue in film, and it has to be so fluent, and it's scary for me, but there's a moment I have to reach another layer, so I felt I have to let go of my fears," she says.
"I've let go a lot of them. But still, there are always other layers to reach."