Juliette Binoche on her new Tuscan-seductress role

The unpretentious star talks about Iran, France's head-scarf law and her wrenching performance in "Certified Copy"

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published March 12, 2011 10:01PM (EST)
Juliette Binoche in "Certified Copy"
Juliette Binoche in "Certified Copy"

In "Certified Copy," the first Western film from the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Juliette Binoche plays a high-strung French journalist, whose name we never learn, who takes a visiting English author on a car trip through Tuscany. Ostensibly, she wants James (played by British opera singer William Shimell, in his film debut) to see a famous 18th-century forgery of a Roman painting, one so good it is called the "Original Copy." His book, you see, is a theoretical art-history text arguing that for practical purposes there is no difference between a copy and an original.

But even before the journey begins, the journalist's 10-year-old son has joked that she's decided to fall in love with James, and her behavior around him is oddly imperious and demanding. When a cafe proprietor in some picturesque village makes the obvious assumption -- that she and James are married -- Binoche's character pounces on it: It's been 15 years, my husband works all the time, I never see him, we fight a lot. James returns from making a phone call to persons unknown (perhaps his real wife or girlfriend) and gradually gets dragged into the game. As the pair continue their odyssey through a Tuscan afternoon, sparring like a couple who really have been together 15 years, the movie's real question comes into focus: How does a forgery or copy of a relationship compare with the so-called real thing?

On one level, "Certified Copy" is exactly what it looks like -- an elegant, wistful and picturesque tale of two ships passing in the Tuscan sunlight, somewhat in the mode of "Before Sunrise" or "Cairo Time." It's by far the most audience-friendly movie of Kiarostami's career, and the first one that's likely to draw numerous Western viewers who've never heard of him and never seen an Iranian movie. But you could also call it, well, a clever copy of that kind of film, with lots of other things going on under the surface. This story bristles with ideas and intelligence, and offers tremendous emotional highs and lows; the longer you stick with it, the more mysterious it gets. Ultimately, Kiarostami isn't just inquiring into the nature of love, marriage and relationships, he's probing the porous boundary between stories and reality.

When I met Binoche a few months ago in her Manhattan hotel room (around the time that "Certified Copy" premiered at the New York Film Festival), she explained that the film was the end result of a circuitous collaboration with Kiarostami. Even in the rarefied world of upscale French cinema, built around a tradition of ethereal, untouchable screen goddesses, the woman known to the Parisian media as La Binoche is a special case. She has certainly appeared in Hollywood movies -- her only Oscar came for "The English Patient" in 1997, and she was nominated again opposite Johnny Depp in the schmaltzy 2000 "Chocolat" -- but she has said no far more often than yes.

Beginning with her breakthrough performance in Philip Kaufman's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" in 1988, Binoche has spent most of her career making high-prestige art films with adventurous directors, with little or no regard for their commercial potential. Cinephiles around the world will never forget her magnetic leading performances in the late Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy, but she's also worked with Jean-Luc Godard ("Hail Mary"), Patrice Leconte ("The Widow of Saint-Pierre"), Leos Carax ("The Lovers on the Bridge"), Michael Haneke ("Caché"), Hou Hsiao-hsien ("The Flight of the Red Balloon"), Amos Gitai ("Disengagement") and Olivier Assayas ("Summer Hours"). She recently finished shooting American director Dito Montiel's thriller "The Son of No One," is developing a new film with Assayas, and has reportedly been cast in David Cronenberg's adaptation of Don DeLillo's "Cosmopolis.")

What strikes you most about Binoche in person -- after you get used to sitting in the same living room with Juliette Binoche, that is -- is how sincere and earnest, even how vulnerable, she is. I don't mean that we became terrific friends in a 20-minute conversation. She is French, after all, which implies a degree of formality that's roughly 250 percent of the American norm. But Binoche, looking handsome and almost fragile in a tailored black pantsuit, gives off no hint of bogus pretension or of the diffident, superior boredom that emanates from other French movie stars. (You can probably guess who I'm talking about.) She listens carefully, laughs often and occasionally grabs hold of the conversation with the same ferocious intensity she brings to the screen.

I get the impression that making "Certified Copy" was the end of a long process between you and Kiarostami. How did it begin?

It was in the air when I met him several times in different places, at [screenwriter and producer] Jean-Claude Carrière's place and at the Cannes festival. Then I did an interview with him. I filmed him, and at the end of the interview he said, "This interview was a really bad idea, but come to Iran." [Laughter.] I said, "OK, OK, fine, maybe I'll come." About a year later, I really started to think about it. I thought I would love to know what was really going on there, after reading about all the Iranian bad people, you know, and all the politics. It turned out that I could get a visa. I was very surprised that I could get there. And I really discovered a completely different country than I imagined, than I was reading about in the media.

I've heard that from other people too. But what do you mean, exactly?

The joy inside the houses! They're very much like Italians. They love life, they enjoy life, they're full of culture. They have a great sense of themselves. And, you know, that area is, how do you say it? The curdle of civilization?

The cradle.

Yes, the cradle of civilization. They're very aware of the power of their poetry, of their artistic strength and awareness. So discovering that was really -- you know, we describe them as these retarded, ancient men who want to control women. And, hello? That happened quite a while ago, everywhere in the world. [Laughter.] Of course I'm against it, the veil thing, but it takes time for men to be aware. Of, you know, their fear, which is bringing more fear.

Well, since you mention the veil, I have to ask you about the recent law in France, which forbids Islamic women from wearing it in many public situations. How do you feel about that?

You know, we come from a different history. The revolution in France really places things on a different scale. The fact that the French policy really comes out of the revolution, the idea that everybody has to be the same -- égalité, fraternité, liberté -- which is, between us, a whole debate. From an outside point of view, it's very hard to understand that. It's not about pushing Muslims away from their beliefs. It's like, everybody's the same, and if you're going in the swimming pool, you've got to be the same as the others. If you put yourself in the swimming pool completely covered, that puts that kid away from the others, away from the group.

Yeah, we have a more pluralistic tradition in the United States, although it's safe to say that's in question right now too. OK, so you went to Iran with him. Then what happened?

There was a sort of quid pro quo. When I arrived at the airport in Tehran, there were photographers and video cameras everywhere, and I was shocked: Wow, why did Abbas do that? Meanwhile, he was thinking: Wow, why did Juliette do that? We didn't expect that. What happened was that there was a journalist on the plane who saw me and phoned some friends, and then it spread out, and the next day there were stories on the front page of the newspaper: Abbas and Juliette have a film together! Abbas was in trouble, because he thought: I have no film with you, and if the government is unhappy with that, I might be in difficulty. So I had to do tons of interviews the next day and the following day, saying, "We have no project! We have no film together!"

After two days of doing that, he started telling me this story about going to Tuscany with this lady who drove him around and started talking to him as if he was her husband. He gave me so many details! I was just taken aback by the story and how fascinating it was. He could see that, and as I was listening he was making up the story, I think. At the end of it, he said, "Do you believe me?" and I said yes. And he said, "No, it's not true. It didn't happen." Of course I laughed, and I laughed for several days after that. I couldn't believe he made me play along, emotionally, like this. After that it still took a while, but he said to me: "Find a producer, and we'll make the film."

This was the first time he's made a film in the West. Was that a big adjustment for him, as you saw it?

I think the fact that we made it in Italy was better for him, because it feels closer to his own country in many ways. He had already done workshops in Italy and made a short film there, so there was already a space for him to work in Italy. He felt kind of comfortable there. It might have been more difficult somewhere else, but now I think he's ready for that. His next project's going to take place in Japan, because it's become very difficult for him to work in his own country.

Yes, it's a strange situation. He's easily the most internationally famous Iranian director, and he can't really make films there. But tell me about working with William Shimell, who had never acted in a film before. Because most of the film is just the two of you, which is a lot of pressure on a newcomer!

Yeah, I could see that it was very difficult sometimes, almost like vertigo for him. You jump into that space, and there's a lot of tension that comes with that. You have to be precise and be free at the same time. How do you combine those two worlds? After a while, I'd say after two weeks, I really saw him differently. I wanted to make sure he was fine, and not panicking too much! We filmed chronologically, and you see him grow as well, as the story moves along.

It's interesting, I think this lady is telling him so many things. She's telling him off, she's pushy, she's needy, all of that. He's, like, subdued most of the time, he doesn't answer back that well. He's wondering what kind of situation he's in. There's something parallel between what William went through and what the character goes through.

This is a movie about people who have just met who start to pretend that they know each other well. You might call it a fiction about pretending, or a film where actors play people who are acting.

Well, as for me, it had to be always true. That's a big theme we went through, Abbas and myself. He said to me: "Actors! They fake all the time! They don't live emotion, it's not true. Even though they cry, they cry for the film. It's not like life, when you're in real pain." I said: "No, Abbas. You're really recreating life and you're really feeling the pain. It's not technical, it's heartfelt." I could see that he didn't agree, and it really didn't matter to me, because he doesn't know. So why do I need to battle? I didn't want to go through big discussions about it. So I just smiled and thought, we'll see.

Actually, I think what he discovered through the shoot was how emotional it was. I don't think he expected that. Most of the time, the way he edits a film, it's quite flat until the end, when the emotion comes in through the construction of the story. The story gives the emotion, not the actors going up and down and revealing their inside worlds. But as we made this one, we discovered that emotion could also give the film a shape in a different way. Theme-wise, this was wonderful. Between the man and the woman, the woman is exposing herself emotionally and the man is more controlling and thoughtful. But it's also interesting that the woman in the film is Abbas as well. He raised his children on his own, and he knows what that's like. So he never separated himself from her.

We only know one of the characters' names, and we don't know anything about their past. I mean, she's got a child, so there's that, obviously. But there's almost nothing else.

I think for Abbas it was like Adam and Eve. You don't know about Adam's past, or Eve's past. They are newly created.

You know, when the film premiered at Cannes, some people actually thought that there was a reality shift at some point. Maybe they actually are married, and either they're pretending not to be at first or we've, I don't know, gone from one universe into another. I don't see it that way, but it's an intriguing idea.

Yeah, and Abbas leaves it that way, which I like. It's not about that -- it's not about choosing a side, whether they're married or not married. It's about the inside world, where you can imagine being married to someone you just met. So we're more in that world, where she takes what's inside her as real. Whether it's true or not true, a copy, a reality, an original -- that doesn't matter in the end. It's like: Can you see me? Can you hear me? Can you love me?

Talk about the moment when they first start to play the game together, pretending to be married. What happens in that scene?

It starts in the cafe, when the bartender asks her a question about him as a husband. He doesn't know what to answer and turns to her, and she's so angry. He's not getting involved! He doesn't know what to say. She catches him not playing the game, not being responsible, and it hits something in her: Oh, men! Men are not responsible! [Laughter.]

Anybody who's ever been married is likely to identify strongly with that scene. [Laughter.] You know, you're running the risk of playing someone who's not likable all the time here.

Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Maybe not even most of the time! At least at the beginning of the film, at least, she's pretty manipulative.

She's manipulative, and she wants to be right all the time. But not at the end. At the end of the movie, there's a moment where she becomes like a little girl.

Oh, I agree. I mean, people will have to see it for themselves, but I think at the end of the movie the audience will fall in love with her, just as the man does. Let me ask you quickly about your career trajectory of working with all these great directors, from Kieslowski and Godard through Haneke and Hou Hsiao-hsien and all the others. You've made other kinds of films too, more commercial films, but it's quite an impressive list.

You know, I had a mother who loved the fine arts, and I was really educated by her. When I was 15, she sent me to see Tarkovsky's films, Dreyer's films, Rossellini's films. I was educating myself very early on, with great directors, with film and theater. So for me it's always been a continuation of that, that love of vision, of artists, and explorations of the human heart. Ideas, feelings and experiences. For me, it's the same impulse. As an actress you also want to try other gears, other worlds, because you don't know them, but you always come back to the world you're really here for.

I also feel responsible, as an actress, to choose directors I really admire. It'd be easy, you know, to do more commercial films. There's more money, more fame, more of whatever you want. But to find directors where you feel like: Oh! Artistically there's a challenge there. Maybe people don't know about them, but that doesn't matter. I want to explore something with them. I have to say that it fulfills something in me, that at the end of it I say, "I've been through an experience with them, something I've never done before." It's all about exploration and sharing something with someone. And enjoying it, although it can be quite traumatic along the way. There was a lot of joy in Abbas' film; we laughed all the time. I mean, it was concentrated and there was intensity. But there was joy as well.

"Certified Copy" is now playing in New York, with wider national release to follow. It's also available on-demand from many cable and satellite providers.





Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'HehirFOLLOW andohehirLIKE Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cannes Film Festival Interviews Iran Italy Jean-luc Godard Johnny Depp Michael Haneke Movies Our Picks