Juliette letters

You can’t have failed to notice that a film with the uninspiring title Certified Copy has just been released at the cinema, as it seems to be the number one chattering point in the media. For a foreign language film, it’s being sold really hard, due to the seismic combination of Abbas Kiarostami, the revered Iranian director, and star Juliette Binoche, whose reputation spreads much further and wider than the arthouse – although that is where she does her best stuff.

Gerard Depardieu, without much cause, had a pop at her recently, expressing his bafflement at her fame in an Austrian magazine, concluding, “She has nothing – absolutely nothing.” (This is being either misreported as “She is nothing”, or just garbled in the usual way of Chinese whispers.) The fat oaf is entitled to his opinion, of course, but this is a phenomenally ungracious thing to have said in interview of a fellow actor. It seems to me that the reason she so elegantly straddles Hollywood and world cinema – for want of a less imperialist term – is that she has something. Hollywood has lured plenty of exotic European actresses onto the rocks over the decades; sometimes it works out, sometimes it does not. For instance, Penelope Cruz is better off in Spain, I’d argue, although nobody’s denying her the opportunity to snaffle up some dollars with which to fund more demanding fare at home. She’s only doing what Sophia Loren did, although Loren was around in the era when you had to sign contracts with Hollywood studios, and she even managed that without forgetting her roots.

Juliette Binoche won her Academy Award well over a decade ago for the English-language English Patient. This put her on the map. She was already on a map, thanks to the Three Colours trilogy, and a fistful of Cesar nominations for her other work in France. I remember being bowled over by her in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, which was her English language debut, albeit based on a Czech novel and set in Prague. Since then, she’s made so many films, I haven’t been able to keep up, but she improves with age, I know that much. She’s only 46, but that may as well be 76 in Hollywood. Her middle years suit her, I think. She has a glowing presence, but she is not showy. She was quiet and believable as a Bosnian seamstress living in London in Anthony Minghella’s Breaking And Entering (which at the time struck me as a French film trapped in a British one – it was meditative and pretentious, and would have been greeted as profound had it been in a foreign language and not English); she was just as credible in the more traditional French role of a middle-class wife and working mother in Michael Haneke’s Cache, her next film. She is not always the “star” of a film. But she is.

In Certified Copy, a landmark piece in that it’s Kiarostami’s first non-Iranian feature after 40 years – both in terms of setting and language – Binoche is called upon to carry the whole show, and she does, with her usual command of a character’s humanity and fallibility, and a bilingual ease that would be beyond most British actors (by which I mean most British people), except Tilda Swinton and Kristen Scott-Thomas. She is, because she’s supposed to be, luminous and attractive and sexy, but she also bears the hurt of separation and the stress of single parenthood. The unnamed French owner of a small Tuscan antiques shop, she offers to show a visiting English author (William Shimell, not an actor but an opera singer by trade) around and they end up, after a fairly fractious getting-to-know-you drive to a significant tourist village, falling into the ways of a long-married couple, either as a prank, or because this is not a story to be taken literally, and they may indeed have “become” a couple. They even row in a restaurant, as if they have known each other for years.

It’s an odd narrative. The dialogue, in English, French and Italian – but not, crucially, Iranian – feels stilted and “written” (or at least, “translated”), and yet both Shimell and Binoche manage to make it real, in places. This is particularly impressive for him, of course, as he’s not a trained thesp. Their relationship is prickly and annoying. It’s not always fun to hang out with them, as they argue over matters aesthetic and domestic, and he deserves a slap more than once, but Binoche holds it all together. The setting is sun-dappled and gorgeous, of course, and Kiaroastami captures it well. It’s not, though, as rounded and satisfying as it might have been. He may be making a profound point. If so, I’m not sure what it is. That marriage is nothing to do with the ceremony and ritual entered into by the young couple who have made a pilgrimage to the village where most of the action takes place? That a “copy” of a marriage is as valid as the “original”, based upon the English author’s own thesis?

It’s worth seeing, but it’s got a hole in the middle of it, and without Binoche, it would be a lot more academic and dry than it is. At one point, her character disappears, and returns, having removed her bra from underneath the top and jacket she’s been wearing throughout, as it was cutting into her. It’s such a simple, practical, human decision, and only sexy in a very mundane, everyday sense (and because it’s Juliette Binoche saying the word “bra”); but it’s a quiet, unassuming turning point in the story. This is not giving anything away, as the film is not about serving up a denouement or any answers, it is just a meditation. You can’t spoil it with plot detail. And it’s a meditation that’s so pretty to look at, it’s tempting to dismiss it as a self-congratulatory confection for the second-home, Sunday Times travel section, Place In The Sun set. But there’s something weird at work, and I have a feeling it might merit a second viewing.

Hey, Certified Copy: it’s not perfect, but here I am banging on about it, and trying to dig something significant out of what I’ve seen. And that’ll do for now.

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