JULIETTE BINOCHE isn't one to be seen and not heard. She famously said ''Non'' to working with Steven Spielberg (twice), has been vocal in her disparaging views on France's Sarkozy administration, has actively campaigned for the release of imprisoned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi and been lambasted publicly by countryman Gerard Depardieu for, well, being her.
The Oscar-winning star of THE ENGLISH PATIENT, of CHOCOLAT, THREE COLOURS and DAMAGE fame, who caused an unsuspecting global audience to swoon in THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, remains, at 48, every inch La Binoche (as the French call her), a force of nature.
When we meet, at the Toronto International Film Festival, Binoche's presence causes a palpable excitement in the festival's Bell Lightbox headquarters. Publicists and security flank her as she prepares for the premiere of her latest film, ELLES, the latest impressive European feature randomly punctured with the odd trip to Hollywood.
In it, she plays a journalist (for France's Elle magazine) writing a feature on teenage prostitution. Her character's tired married life and the plight of the seemingly well-adjusted middle-class teens transform her life dramatically.
''I don't have general views [on prostitution],'' she says, when I ask about her personal investment in the role. ''I'm just listening to girls. I found it so provoking; you don't expect life to be like that.
''It's an issue that's important - there's not a lot of help for students, when you want to study, and it's a right to study, apparently, in our world. And then you suddenly feel like, what's your choice?''
Binoche was more fortunate than the girls in the film. Born in Paris into an artistic family - her father was Jean-Marie Binoche, a director, actor and sculptor; her mother Monique Stalens, a teacher, director and actor - she took acting lessons in her teens. ''I was lucky to meet a man who helped me, my boyfriend at the time,'' she says. As well as being an accomplished painter and, more recently, dancer, she remains France's highest-paid female actor.
Her parents' divorce, at age four, affected her profoundly. To this day she has never married and is famously single, a working mother to Raphael, 18, and Hannah, 12, from two separate relationships (the first with professional scuba diver Andre Halle, the second with actor Benoit Magimel).
''It's not easy [being a working mum],'' she says. ''Working and having children is difficult for anybody. The thing is, with acting, travelling a lot, re-creating life wherever you go, you have to organise yourself. When you love your children and you're passionate about your work, you find solutions.''
She has been resolute about not moving to the US, despite offers that continue to pour in. Her slate of movies this year, for example, includes David Cronenberg's coming COSMOPOLIS, in addition to at least three other features.
''I still get wonderful parts,'' she says of that rare feat of beating the over-40 curse in Hollywood. ''But I didn't choose to go to Hollywood; I chose to stay away.
''Why? Because it's my intuition, because I like freedom, because I don't want to fit into a stereotype way of working. ''And having children, I didn't want to move. I wanted them to be able to see their fathers.''
Not playing the Hollywood game has, if anything, boosted her kudos with audiences and filmmakers. In 2010, she won the award for best actress at Cannes, making her the first actress to win Europe's so-called ''triple crown''. She also won at Venice and Berlin.
Her role in ELLES (pictured above, with writer-director Malgorzata Szumowska), as a prejudiced professional working mother who is gradually ''transformed'' is the centrepiece of this year's French Film Festival, in capital cities across Australia.
''It was kind of funny to be on the other side,'' she says of playing a journalist. ''Journalists are all different … Some think they have to be objective, but what does it mean to be objective? It means not involving yourself in it. Some … already have a preconception about how you're living, who you are and all that.
''In [my character's] case, the idea was to have a transformation. That's what I expect from anybody, journalists or not. That you transform, that communication helps you understand something you never expected.''
Ever the free spirit, albeit with a robust family life at home in Paris, Binoche will return to Australia this year to star in Kim Farrant's mystery-drama STRANGERLAND, her first trip to our shores since her acclaimed theatrical dance tour in-i visited the Sydney Opera House in 2009.
Ever the world traveller, she admits traversing the globe was always a key ambition but that, typically, there are still challenges ahead. ''We're going back to the play [Miss Julie] in April at Theatre de Lyon, because I haven't done theatre for a while,'' she says. ''I want to go back to painting. And I'm about to learn how to ride a motorbike [for a film].
''You have to choose what's important, what's essential - and then you just make it work.''
ELLES is screening as part of the French Film Festival, with a wider theatrical release to follow later this year. Details: affrenchfilmfestival.org.
First published in The Sun-Herald.