She might have won her Oscar back in 1996 for her turn in Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient," but well over a decade later Juliette Binoche finds herself basking in the glow of a career all time high with acclaimed performances in a slew of art-house darlings, including Olivier Assayas' "Summer Hours," Hsiao-hsien Hou's remake "Flight of the Red Balloon," and now Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy," which won Binoche the Best Actress award at Cannes this year, and just wrapped playing at the New York Film Festival (NYFF) earlier this week.
Honor Roll is a daily series for December that will feature new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-persons of some of the year's most notable cinematic voices. Today we're revisiting an interview we did with "Certified Copy" actress Juliette Binoche, who ranked among the best performances of the year in Indiewire's recent year-end poll of critics and bloggers.
"At school I didn't get any prizes for anything, and I have to say as an actress I got a lot of prizes," said a warm and radiant Binoche, in New York last week. "I'm very lucky. So it's always for me a big wink of life. It's like a pat on your shoulder, saying 'Hey girl, you did okay.'"
Kiarostami's latest marks a big departure for the Iranian director. "Certified Copy" is his first film to be shot outside of Iran, and to feature an accomplished actress like Binoche. The Tuscany set romantic dramedy pits Binoche and British opera star William Shimell together, as a pair who seemingly meet for the first time during a book conference in which Shimell's character lectures on the validity of certified copies. Over the course of the film, as the two embark on a day trip along the scenic countryside, questions arise surrounding their history together, in a wonderfully obtuse way.
The renown director of "Ten" and "Taste of Cherry" approached Binoche with the idea for his film, pitching it as a true story from his life. Binoche expressed at being torn between whether Kiarostami's tale is indeed factual or not, which plays nicely into the mystifying question at the center of the film.
"I kind of knew it was Abbas' big film about relationships," said Binoche. "The fact that we shot in Italy likely freed him. When I went to see him in Iran, we talked about our love life, our relationships, the differences between men and women, and all of our needs being different. So it was natural to come together like this."
Binoche and Shimell exhibit a myriad of emotions over the course of one afternoon in the film, mirroring in essence the entire life span of a failed marriage, from first encounter to its complicated ruin. As the unnamed heroine, Binoche turns in a performance of intense vulnerability, so full of life it recalls Penelope Cruz's similarly baring and intoxicating turn in Pedro Almodovar's "Volver." (She also straddles three languages in "Certified Copy" – French, English and Italian – the latter of which she said she learned from her first boyfriend, an Italian.) But while Almodovar is known for his close ties to actors, Kiarostami has a tendency to hire amateur performers, like Shimell.
On collaborating with Kiarostami, Binoche – who's generally known for working with 'actor's directors' like Michael Haneke and the late Minghella – described the process as a "challenging" one, but one she relished all the same.
"I wanted to show him that it's possible to work with actors – that you can recreate life and be real and truthful as somebody who's not aware of the camera," she said. "For me the challenge was really taking him out of his sphere, and into the emotions. Abbas, with his films, he creates the emotions through the cutting of his films. They almost seem flat, but at the end of the film you feel the story stay with you – it works with you. I wanted to take him another way, which is on the ups and downs of relationship, to show the roller-coaster that emotion can give you. He was a little taken aback by that. As a man, he probably thought, 'How am I going to handle this?'"
This desire to challenge the director is something that Binoche said she strives towards on each of her projects. For Binoche, acting is a hugely collaborative experience, where the actor doesn't simply play the "soldier obeying" the director's rules.
"What I love about acting is that you have to forget yourself," she said, "and that you're using yourself to reach another part of yourself through a story, through the meeting with somebody on set, be it the director, or another actor. For me, that's my goal, that's my joy. I don't go as Juliette, I go as 'What are we going to do together?'"
Binoche will next be seen in "Sponsoring" from Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska; an artist Binoche describes as "the Polish director of the moment." The endearing fondness Binoche has for Szumowska, is a sentiment Binoche expresses when names of directors she's worked with over the span of her career pop up into the conversation.
"The director and I have got to understand each other on another level," Binoche said. "That's on the artistic level, the heart level. During production there comes a moment you don't know who's who – who's the actor, who's the director – and you're just together. That's just a wonderful feeling. That's what I'm reaching for, praying for."