By Elizabeth O'Brien
March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

Juliette Binoche once spent nights sleeping under a Paris bridge to prepare for a film about two homeless lovers, but it was her own family’s Sunday ritual at her sprawling stone house in the Paris suburbs that helped inspire her for Chocolat. That’s when she gathers her children Raphael, 7, and Hanna, 15 months, slips in a video of 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and pigs out on myriad rich chocolates and pastries.

“Juliette’s been crazy about chocolate since she was small,” says her sister, photographer Marion Stalens, 39. “When she’s not feeling good, she can eat a whole chocolate bar. And when she is feeling good—same thing.”

Look for a sugar rush later this month. Binoche, 37, is up for a Best Actress Oscar for her role as the woman who beguiles a French village with her culinary arts in Chocolat. A Best Supporting Actress winner for 1996’s The English Patient, Binoche I knows she’s a long shot (“I think it’s already decided,” she told a French u journalist, alluding to hyperfavorite Julia Roberts) and seems to have little interest in accolades anyway. “You can’t take it for yourself,” she said of her Oscar in Studio magazine in 1998. “It’s the result of work and of an encounter.”

Professionally, Binoche’s encounters have made her one of France’s highest-paid actresses (earning up to nearly $1 million per film), despite her spotty box office history. In fact, a string of disappointments led her to leave France last year for a three-month run onstage in Betrayal in New York City, where she and her kids lived in a Manhattan loft. “It’s as if France were my husband and the United States my lover,” she has said. “I decided to follow my lover for a while.”

Back home, she and her real-life lover of about two years, Hanna’s father, Benoit Magimel, 26 (André Hallé, a scuba diver with whom she lived from 1991 to 1993, is Raphael’s father), shun publicity. Binoche takes advantage of France’s strict privacy laws, suing publications for printing facts about her personal life or running unauthorized photos. (Not that she’s hiding her romances. “We have intense lives, she told London s Evening Standard. “You can’t ask an actor or actress to be a perfect couple for years and years.”) She stays clear of the party circuit, even hurrying back to Paris from London (on Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein’s chartered plane) just after the British Academy Film Awards on Feb. 25 to see her son off to school the next morning. “She’s very maternal,” says Patrice Leconte, who directed the actress in the recent The Widow of St. Pierre. “I don’t think she’d be Juliette Binoche without children.”

She had a darker view of her own childhood, says sister Marion. Born to Jean-Marie, 67, and Monique Stalens Binoche, 61, both stage directors and actors who split when she was 4, Binoche spent time with Marion in a boarding school run by nuns before the two settled with their mother in north central France. Despite both parents’ warnings against an acting career—”They were worried about our future,” Marion says—Binoche went on to study at France’s state theater school. In 1985, emerging as an in-demand young actress, she landed a role in a French film and fell for director Leos Carax, weathering a stormy five years with him. Her role in 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being opposite Daniel Day-Lewis raised her profile in Hollywood, but she maintains a Gallic independence—and candor—about both the movie business and her peers. She branded Jeremy Irons authoritarian after working with him on 1992’s Damage and was canned from a film in 1996 by French producer-director Claude Berri because, she said, she wasn’t an “obedient little soldier.”

That drive, along with star power, lets her indulge offscreen passions, such as sponsoring a Cambodian children’s charity, which have nothing to do with Hollywood glitz. But Oscar night beckons, and Binoche will be there. “I think she’s going to have one of those famous people design her dress,” Weinstein says. “We’ve been ribbing her mercilessly about that.” In fact, famous person Jean Paul Gaultier, who has outfitted Binoche for galas past, is designing her gown. Wardrobe aside, she’s not worried. “I am not expecting anything,” she said recently. “It is my way of staying healthy.”

Elizabeth O’Brien

Cathy Nolan and Peter Mikelbank in Paris, Rebecca Paley in New York City and Pete Norman in London