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Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross) has no reason to believe she is anything but ordinary. Her father (Richard Gere), a beloved university professor, dotes on her talented elder brother (Max Minghella). Her scientist mother (Juliette Binoche) seems consumed by her career. When a spelling bee threatens to reaffirm her mediocrity, Eliza amazes everyone: she wins. Her newfound gift garners an invitation not only to the national competition, but an entrée into the world of words and Jewish mysticism that have so long captivated her father's imagination. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) and based on the novel by Myla Goldberg.
 

 Our Dinner with Juliette

The scene:
It's a mid-November evening in Paris. Academy Award®-winning and internationally beloved movie actress Juliette Binoche arrives, on time, to a dinner meeting at an elegant but casual restaurant. She lives in Paris, and is well known here. But even in blasé Paris, she causes something of a stir when she enters a room. In Paris, the locals call her simply "La Binoche." She looks fantastic: her hair is long and colored a dark honey blonde because of a film she has just finished shooting.

She approaches the maitre d', who recognized her before she even came through the door, and explains that she has come for a dinner meeting with two American directors, but she doesn't know what they look like.

Background: This is a part of "casting," the ritualized courtship process that leads to films getting made. This is how it works most of the time: Directors send a script to an actor's agent, hoping that it will be well received, and that it will reach the actor and that he or she will read it. If they read it and like it, there will be a meeting. And that is what everything rides on. It's critical, like a job interview and a first blind date rolled into one. Will the director speak intelligently about the movie? Will he or she say the right things about the actor's talent? Does the director look like a director? Will the director have the right table manners? Who knows what actors might be thinking about?

We are the American directors who Juliette is coming to meet for the first time. We carefully chose this restaurant with the help of Jerry, our friend and Paris insider, and set the time for eight o'clock. It's now eight o'clock. We're not there yet. We're not even close. This is a big mistake. You could call this un désastre.

Thirty minutes earlier: Freshly showered, shaved and spruced, we are in the elevator, riding down to the lobby of the hotel that Twentieth Century Fox travel (the studio) has arranged for us. Unusually, the hotel seems not to be on the left bank, or the right bank. We're told it's officially part of the city, but it seems something like the Staten Island of Paris. It's an arrondissement with three digits? But we're not here to see the sights. It's one night; we don't mind. We know the address of the restaurant; we studied French in high school. We reach the lobby, head through the sliding glass doors to the street, and find a line of about twenty Parisians looking at their watches and waiting for a cab. There are no cabs in sight.

Ever tried to hail a cab on the street in Paris? Doesn't happen. Taxi stands. That's it. And we waste the next twenty minutes in some sort of foggy panic looking for one that is less mobbed. We don't know enough (about where we are, or where we're going, or life in general) to risk the Métro. We're certain that it's too far to walk. For some reason we don't ask the concierge desk for help; we just run. Blocks now. Nothing. And by the time we get back to the hotel, the line there is now even longer. We try a new direction. And another. Imagine the worst. Somehow, finally (it had something to do with one of us dashing into the middle of le boulevard) we catch a cab. We're driving now, but we're late. Very. And as we turn left onto the Champs-Elysées we find ourselves dead stopped in bumper-to-bumper Parisian traffic.

We venture, in our best high school French, that we're late, and wonder if there is "une autre route." The driver makes that face that French people make (derision mixed with apathy), and tells us, we think, that we should have taken the Métro. He says some other stuff that we don't catch. It's now past eight o'clock. We're still twenty minutes away, at least. We're not moving. We're screwed. We're sitting there thinking, "We've come all the way to Paris for one meal, and we're going to miss it." We're thinking, "One of the great actresses of our day, an actress we adore, is waiting for us and we've left her sitting alone in a strange restaurant." We're thinking, "She'll leave. And we've screwed up this movie." Why wouldn't she leave?

Meanwhile, at the restaurant: The knowing maitre d' has escorted Juliette to a quiet table in the corner of the restaurant where, as anticipated, two nicely dressed American guys are waiting for a guest. They're the only Americans in the restaurant. (Our Jerry doesn't recommend restaurants for tourists.) Juliette approaches enthusiastically, extends her hand, smiles graciously. "Hi, I'm Juliette." They smile back. She sits down.

Freeze frame here. On Juliette's lovely smiling face. She doesn't know that these guys aren't us. That they're just a couple of random Americans having dinner, with a friend who's late. She's a little confused by the blank expressions on their faces. She's thinking, "Maybe they don't recognize me, because my hair is different." She's thinking, "Maybe they're disappointed somehow, meeting me in person?" She's thinking, "They're so conservative. And strange." She's thinking, "This could be a very long evening." And who knows what they're thinking. They're two random American guys in Paris having dinner and Juliette Binoche just sat down at their table and introduced herself. They're thinking, "Paris rocks!"

Meanwhile, in the taxi: Terror. We don't have a cell phone that works in Paris, but the driver might. Maybe we can borrow it. Together, quietly in the back seat, we construct a sentence that we think approximates "Sir, may we please have your telephone?" We know he doesn't like us, but we beg. And for some reason he agrees. Then we realize we don't have the number for the restaurant. (Paris 411?) We work up another sentence. "Sir, please…restaurant…number…thank you, sir." He can't believe us. We give the phone back to him. He calls information, dials the number, hands us back the phone. But the man at the other end knows nothing about our rendez-vous avec Juliette Binoche. He knows nothing about our réservation à huit heures. He seems to be saying that there is pas de restaurant there. No restaurant? What was panic becomes an apoplectic meltdown. We're thinking, "We've told Juliette Binoche to meet us at a restaurant that isn't there." We're thinking, "Now we've left Juliette Binoche waiting at a random address on the street where there is no restaurant." We're thinking, "Why would Jerry do this to us?"

Resolution: Binoche. One simple word. One word that changed the course of the evening, and ultimately the course of our little movie about spelling and chance and mystical connections. A word of international understanding; a word our taxi driver overheard from the front seat. He took the phone back, and in moments we had it sorted out. Of course there was a restaurant there. A restaurant named after the dock it is on. We had been connected to the dock, not the restaurant. Now the restaurant was phoned, and soon Juliette was on the line. Patient, understanding, generous Juliette. She was laughing a lot, and we didn't know why until later.

We had a wonderful dinner, talking about Bee Season, about Juliette's character, the enigmatic Miriam, about the very American custom of spelling bees, about mysticism and God and families. As they were walking out, the American guys Juliette had started the evening with stopped to say goodbye. Big laughs all around. (Juliette was their dear friend now: "Au revoir, Juliette!") When our dinner was over, the waiter took us down a steep ladder into the wine cellar to show us where Jews were hidden during the war. It was a dark tiny place filled with terribleness and love.

It was a perfect night. Maybe we were suffering from some sort of post-traumatic euphoria, but it all seemed just right.

It seems to be customary at the end of one of these meetings for the actor to say thank you, stand up, and excuse him or herself, leaving the directors alone at the table to settle things. Not Juliette. We can't remember now; we think she might even have managed to pay the bill. But we definitely left together. We walked her to her car, parked on the street in front of the restaurant, and she did the sweetest thing: she offered to give us a lift back to our hotel. We thanked her, but declined. We had something to prove. It was nearly midnight in Paris, and we flagged ourselves a cab.