I know people who tend to roll their eyes at the mention of Juliette Binoche’s work, considering it synonymous with airy pretension. I would recommend, for starters, that they seek out the two films she has made with Michael Haneke to date, Code Unknown (2000) and Caché (2005), because two more edgy, bracingly unpleasant movies are hard to imagine.
In retrospect, the resolutely unglamorous, uncomfortable settings that Haneke puts Binoche’s character into in Code Unknown seem to mark a turning point in the actress’ career. Suddenly the star had a new context.
I would also suggest they watch Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, because this might be Binoche’s best work to date, in a role that won her the Best Actress award at Cannes in 2010. This sublimely tricky movie is no star vehicle for a diva; the lead performance is integrated into an elegantly enigmatic puzzle masterminded by Kiarostami. Binoche plays an antique shop owner in Tuscany identified only as “Elle,” i.e., “She” in French, who goes on a daylong walking tour of the town of Lucignano with James (William Shimell), a visiting English author she has met the day before.
Or at least, that’s what their relationship initially seems to be. In Kiarostami’s suavely mind-bending scenario, Elle and James’ relationship does a sudden, 180-degree turn halfway through the movie; what we took to be reality here proves unexpectedly fluid. The pivotal moment comes in a café, when James starts playing along with Elle’s conceit that the two of them are married.
Binoche has a particularly fine moment of acting here: Elle’s sour amusement at the fiction that James is her husband turns to surprise and seeming confusion when he starts going along with it, and suddenly she’s on the verge of a breakdown, with what look like several different emotions colliding on her face all at once — the illusion of spontaneity is startling.
Both in the café scene and a later one where Elle and James seek refuge in a trattoria, Kiarostami shoots each character head on, as seen from the other’s POV across the table, thus creating plenty of uncomfortable intimacy between the audience and the couple on screen. The direct POV shots force the viewer to do what James would rather not — to really look at Elle, in all her painfully exposed neediness. As Elle starts falling to pieces, Binoche is almost disturbingly convincing.
It’s in the trattoria as well that Kiarostami’s judicious casting of William Shimell as James truly pays off. Shimell is an opera singer who has never acted in movies before, so the audience brings no associations of him in past roles to Certified Copy.
A director selects a nonactor for a project because of the presumed authenticity that the humble civilian brings to the screen — the nonactor just has to be in front of the camera. So it is with Shimell; the air of culture and dignity he exudes speaks the proverbial volumes about James, this high-minded, well-spoken fellow, such a natural fit for his elegantly tailored clothes, and so ill at ease dealing with emotions. As Elle and James sink into mutual recriminations and exasperation in the restaurant, James looks desperate to get away, and a kind of emotional reticence that Shimell brings to the part is perfect for the moment. It shows us exactly what it is about James that’s driving Elle over the edge.
It’s a sign of what’s fascinating about Certified Copy, though, that on a second viewing I saw something different in Shimell’s performance here. James does a slow burn, finally giving Elle his full attention when he launches into a comical rant: “I apologize for the restaurant, I apologize for the wine, and I apologize for the last 15 years of my existence!”
But in his initial hesitations, it’s just possible to discern a man deciding to commit whole-heartedly to the apparent role-playing that has overtaken James and Elle’s interaction. He starts venting at Elle as a stand-in for a past lover, the way she may be using him a whipping boy for the husband who let her down so badly.
Given how fluid and elusive this movie is, it’s entirely possible that whenever I see Certified Copy again, this aspect of Shimell’s performance will have receded for me. This is a film about the nature of subjective perception, after all. But the elegant head trip Kiarostami has fashioned here wouldn’t be nearly so memorable if the performances didn’t ground the scenario in a recognizable reality. Binoche and Shimell convince us that what we’re seeing at any given moment is true, thereby enabling the director to expertly pull the rug out from under us.
For a review of Certified Copy, click here.