After winning the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 1997 for Taste of Cherry, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami could have courted an international audience by reproducing his earlier successes over and over. Instead, he spent much of the following decade making shorts and experimental videos, with varied success. Last year, he returned to narrative filmmaking with Certified Copy, which opens Friday at The Belcourt, and the result was greeted as a stunning reinvention that revisits Kiarostami's pet themes while breaking new ground as well.
It's also perhaps the movie that could draw him his widest audience yet — thanks in no small part to his lead actress, Juliette Binoche, who plays an unnamed gallery owner traveling through Tuscany with a companion (William Shimell). Binoche has delivered marvelous performances for a portfolio of distinguished directors — Léos Carax, the late Krzyzstof Kieslowski, Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abel Ferrara, Olivier Assayas. But she tops herself here, showing a quicksilver ability to change moods.
The Scene recently spoke to Juliette Binoche by phone at a Paris café. The interview below hints at spoilers, so be warned.
Scene: William Shimell has a background as an opera singer, but he's never acted in a film before. How did that affect the shoot?
Juliette Binoche: His personality fit the character very well. I didn't find it a problem. At the beginning, there was a sort of shiver because it was a discovery for him. Learning lines and meeting marks and having to do it all several times was something new for him, even though he'd done opera. Very quickly, he got into it, and he worked quite easily.
You've worked with a lot of directors with very strong visions like Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Olivier Assayas. What attracts you to auteurs?
They have their own vision and don't try to please the "ideal spectator." I love feeling the independence in an artist. I don't like getting stuck in a system. It doesn't make me want to carry on watching a film.
Kiarostami seems to prefer working with non-professional actors. Could you sense that experience from his direction of you, and was his direction noticeably different from how other directors have worked with you?
I feel like I worked with a human being. That's what I feel when I work with a strong director. It's about who you are, really. It comes all together in a natural way. We never discussed acting, just being. We had two weeks of rehearsal, even though he never works with professional actors. But on the first day of rehearsal, he asked for a TV and DVD player. He put a DVD on and it was actually a rough draft of the full film that he had already shot with assistants on location. I was impressed by that. It's very specific in that way. Like Abbas, Hou Hsiao-hsien never works with professional actors. [Note: this isn't entirely true.]
He does one shot, and it's completely improvised. The D.P. and the actors all jump into it. Every shot with Abbas, who's a photographer, is meticulously chosen and framed, but after that, I was totally free.
Your character's behavior can be interpreted several different ways. I'm not going to ask for your interpretation, but I'm curious if you settled on one.
No, I didn't choose. What I chose to believe to be true is the moment. Whether the man is a husband, lover or stranger, it had to be true at that particular moment. I chose that because when I read the script, I told Abbas I didn't understand the script. He said "It's you all the time." A year later, I realized that the emotions she's feeling are most important. When she needs a husband, he's one. The emotions create the situation.
Did all the quick changes in mood and emotion your character goes through, particularly in the final half, make your performance particularly challenging?
I knew that I could explore more. Sometimes directors are control freaks, but Abbas is not. We had fun. We had long takes in which the sequences allowed a form of introspection about what it is to be her, what it is to be feeling abandoned. It's a philosophical way of acting. Abbas puts his eyes in front of landscapes and doesn't explain. He just wants to see what's going on. In the same way, he puts his eyes on my face or William's face and wants to see what's going on there.
Having visited Iran to make Kiarostami's 2008 film Shirin and worked with Kiarostami, who's written scripts for Jafar Panahi, what was your reaction to Panahi's arrest and conviction last December for alleged transgressions and propaganda against Iran? Many people here were outraged.
Well, I was drained. While we were shooting, we were overwhelmed by what was going on and feeling the weight of responsibility by shooting with an Iranian crew. After that, when Jafar was put in prison, [Cannes programmer] Gilles Jacob and Abbas made it clear that we were very supportive of Jafar and wanted him to be liberated. I was very concerned about his state. I was thrilled when he came out of prison two days after Cannes. Now, I don't know. It's the same kind of situation. Of course, I'm concerned and overwhelmed. How could I not be?