Juliette Binoche in THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996) - Supporting Actress Sundays

The first Sunday in June commences a new month of Supporting Actress Sundays, addressing the least "past" year yet: 1996.

And StinkyLulu's opted to start things off with the performance that won the prize:
Best Supporting Actress Juliette Binoche in Best Picture The English Patient (1996)

But first, a question: why was Binoche nominated as Best Supporting Actress while Kristen Scott Thomas (with no more screentime, possibly less) was nominated Best Actress? Because -- make no mistake -- Binoche's performance as French Canadian nurse, Hana -- friend, caregiver & salvation for the crispy critter that is Ralph Fiennes -- provides the soul to this strange & beautiful movie. So. Why -- for a role that provides both the narrative frame and emotional grounding for the film's bloated epochal romance -- did Juliette Binoche get the "JackTwist"? Was it Miramax marketing? Ant-Frenchy sentiment? Whut?

The film begins with Binoche's Hana as an angel in a nurse's habit -- dispensing pain-relieving drugs (and kisses) to wounded soldiers in field hospitals and transport brigades somewhere in Italy at the height of World War II. In quick succession, Hana's boyfriend & her best friend each get killed, leaving Hana with the irrationally sensible belief: "I must be a curse." Hana -- possibly afraid of more loss, possibly just really tired of it all -- decides she's had enough of the hospital transport &, as the primary caregiver for one especially burnt up, anonymous charge (known only as "The English Patient"), determines that it's dangerous & cruel to keep moving him at the whims of war. Binoche's Hana then demands to see her patient to his death in the relative peace of an abandoned monastery in the Italian countryside.

At the monastery, in the movie's most sustaining emotional arc, Hana salves her own as well as her patient's wounds. She cuts her hair. She plants a garden. She wears pretty farm dresses. She starts reading to "The English Patient," in the hopes of stirring his memory. And, as happens when pretty women take up residence in ramshackle Italian buildings, a curious assortment of random guys -- some creepy, some kind -- start hanging around. One of these men -- an Indian/Sikh bomb expert named Kip -- stirs the very feelings & sense of human connection that Hana sought to avoid by holing up. Tentatively, they find their way to each other. And then, in the film's most exultant set-piece, Kip whisks Hana away on his motorbike to do what U.S. audiences have come to expect pretty French Canadian types to do: fly through the air beautifully (via suspension rigging) while performing an elliptical erotic aerial ballet to generically bombastic symphonic accompaniment. (Oh the Zumanity!)

It is sorta wierd (in a meta way) that the actor playing Kip (Lost's Naveen Andrews) started dating Binoche's fellow '96 Supporting Actress nominee, Barbara Hershey, a year or so after the ceremony. Does Naveen Andrews provide a secret link among this month's nominees? Conspiracy theories welcome.

Of course, by discovering love with Kip, Hana also finds herself back on the emotional minefield from which she initially sought escape. (The metaphors in this flick do run a little thick.) But, as luck would have it, this provides Binoche's most heart-crumpling scene. It's a morning after. Kip & Hana have enjoyed an evening of great long-hair sex in a barn. Hardy -- Kip's bombsniffing partner -- pounds on the door. Hana answers. It's urgent. Bomb. Need Kip. Hana steps back inside to get him. When she steps back out, Binoche's face is red, puffy. She beseeches Hardy -- does he have to go? do you need him? Kip assures her: "It's what I do." But Binoche's tantrum continues, her serene nurse face dissembling into that of a terrified child, wheezing, selfish, & pathetic with fear. It's a remarkable moment. For it underscores the actress' deftness in inhabiting this sketchy paragon of a woman. Director Anthony Minghella's expert screenplay gives Hana's exposition in quick, strong swipes & that's it. Binoche steps right in & makes her real. And even as the film tends to revel in the uncommon beauty of Juliette's face, it's Binoche's uncanny actorly intelligence that anchors the film's epic sentiment & romantic grandiosity within an emotionally plausible reality. Her performance makes the film. (And, honestly, Binoche's performance makes the film tolerable. Because, truly, StinkyLulu will crycrycry like a widdle girl at the romance of -- say -- The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants but big 2-vhs historic romantic tragedies like this one just make Lulu wanna hurl Goobers at the screen.) Indeed, Binoche's Hana provides the film's truly redemptive arc: As Hana recuperates her capacity to experience & (most significantly) witness love, she herself lifts the "curse" she believes/fears herself to be. Binoche plays this simply & beautifully, her performance becoming the vehicle for the movie's actual impact.

Which, again, raises the question: how is Binoche's a supporting performance? (And, to be sure, this will come up again in discussion of '96 Nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies.) It's the one thing about the category that gets Lulu all riled. What makes a supporting performance? (Of course, Lulu really could give a poop about the other characters in this particular film, so it may be sheer bias toward the kind of female characters on the fringe of big movies.) That's an open question, lovely reader. Curious to hear your thoughts.


RC said...

binoche is such a wonderful actress.

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com

Arun said...

I heart Binoche in this (though my choice for Supporting Actress in 96 was Courtney Love) and I LOVE the film. I'm someone whose really turned off by epic love stories but 'The English Patient' hooked me in. C'mon stinky, you gotta at least admit that Ralph Fiennes was amazing...

criticlasm said...

Crispy critter. Hee hee.

par3182 said...

I never had any problems with Binoche being in the Supporting category, as I was completely smitten with Ralph & Kristen's doomed love and felt their story drove the film, even if Hana provided the soul.

Plus, if she'd been in Lead she never would have been able to blurt out "I thought Lauren was going to get it". And then we all would've missed that cut to stone-faced Bacall. Brilliant.

newland said...

I think Miramax decided that the soul of the film belonged to the love story in the desert. (See also the movie poster in all its variations for theatrical release or DVD), so it made sense that Kristin had to go lead.
Binoche was good in supporting, I actually think that both ladies were supporting, but if one had to go lead, that one was Kristin.
Binoche wouldn't have won if she had been in the leading category, which would have been a shame.