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Working with the right people

Juliette Binoche finally gets her dream director

By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / March 27, 2011

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NEW YORK — When the French actress Juliette Binoche won her only Oscar, in 1997, for “The English Patient,’’ she recalls journalists asking if she was planning to move to the United States to carve out a bigger career in Hollywood. Her response: “No, I just want to go to Iran and work with Abbas Kiarostami.’’ That answer no doubt met with surprise, even from celebrity chroniclers familiar with the visionary Iranian writer-director, whose poetic, humanist works (“Taste of Cherry,’’ “Close-Up,’’ “Life and Nothing More . . .’’) eschew the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking.

“I was a great admirer of his way of thinking and seeing. What I love about his films is the way that they accompany you forever in your life. Whether it’s one sentence or one frame or moment or feeling, it stays in you,’’ said Binoche during an interview at last fall’s New York Film Festival, where her recent collaboration with Kiarostami, “Certified Copy,’’ screened to rapturous applause. The film opens in the Boston area on Friday. “I need new experiences and inspirations as an actress. And I want to provoke those experiences. So I think you’ve got to come forward with your desires and say to people, ‘I want to work with you.’ ’’

Not long after her Oscar win, Binoche met Kiarostami at Cannes through the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. Later, they began talking about a collaboration. Kiarostami invited Binoche to visit him in Iran and, despite initial reluctance, she eventually took him up on the offer. “I discovered a country that was totally different from what I had read about,’’ said Binoche, 47, dressed on this day in a chic gray pantsuit with wide lapels, her hair swooped back from her face. “I really fell in love with those people. They are so full of life. It’s an inspiring place.’’

While Binoche was there, Kiarostami told her a story about an incident in his life when he met a woman and they began pretending to be husband and wife. Binoche was com pletely absorbed. “By the end, he said, ‘Do you believe me — that it really happened to me?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘It’s not true.’ Then I started laughing. I didn’t know what to believe, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it,’’ she recalled.

A year and a half later, she received the script for “Certified Copy,’’ based on the scenario he had told her. In the film, Binoche plays a character only referred to as “She’’ (“Elle’’ in French), an antiques dealer living in Tuscany. She attends a lecture by a British author, James Miller (opera baritone William Shimell), whose new book considers the nature of artistic authenticity and the relationship between a forgery and an original artwork. Later they meet up at her shop and embark on a drive through the countryside to a small village in the Tuscan hills.

The two debate the nature of art, aesthetics, love, and life. When they stop for a drink at a cafe, the owner mistakes them for a married couple, and Binoche’s character plays along with the notion (while James takes a call on his cell), telling the owner how she doesn’t see her husband enough because of work. Afterward, she shares this incident with James, and as they stroll through the village, they begin to take on their assigned roles, pretending to be a long-married couple, with all the resentments, frustrations, love, and tenderness that entails.

Is this just a game? Or are these two actually married? Kiarostami has fashioned a rumination on identity and romance that considers the relationship between the real and the fake in art and in life. Why is a reproduction not considered as valuable as the original? Is anything ever really new?

“At first, I was taken aback by this character. I thought, ‘How am I going to play this lady? She’s quite insane,’ ’’ said Binoche, who exhibits none of the icy detachment of your stereotypical French actress, smiling and laughing warmheartedly throughout the conversation.

So she phoned Kiarostami and asked him, “Abbas, what kind of neuroses does she have? And he said, ‘What do you mean? It’s nothing like that. It’s you! The story is you.’ Finally I realized that I should always be the same, whether I was in one reality or another reality. You’re just talking with the truth of your heart and the needs that you have.’’

As a director, Kiarostami often works in this way, blurring the boundary between reality and fiction in order to discover the truth of life. Speaking through a translator during a recent phone interview from a hotel in Tehran, Kiarostami says that he wrote the script and designed the character expressly for Binoche. “I knew that I was getting very close to the nature of Juliette as a woman and as a person,’’ he says, “and that there wouldn’t be a conflict between what I would ask of her as an actress and how I feel about the story or the character that I asked her to embody.’’

“Certified Copy’’ marks a number of firsts for the 70-year-old director: It’s his first film made outside of Iran and his first movie made with a star of Binoche’s stature. Typically, Kiarostami works with nonprofessional actors, because, he says, “Their impression is truer and closer to their own reality than my ideas and my prejudices of what they should say, how they should behave, or how they should act. And this is what I really need to feed my own way of directing.’’

Still, Binoche said that she challenged Kiarostami’s way of thinking about professional actors. “I remember early conversations I had with him, where he would say, ‘Well, when you act in films, when you cry, it’s not true. You’re not really being sad, or you’re not really angry.’ And I said, ‘No, when you’re acting, your whole body is upside down, your heart is beating differently. The experience of acting, the body thinks what’s happening is for real. It’s all true,’ ’’ she said. “And he was very surprised sometimes. It was amusing because usually a director wants to push an actor. But I believe an actor can push a director’s expectations, too.’’

While Kiarostami was at first hesitant about making a film set in a foreign culture and using foreign languages (French, Italian, and English are all spoken), his fears about “Certified Copy’’ getting lost in translation proved unfounded. After he wrote the script, he sent it off to Martin Scorsese, a friend and longtime admirer, to gauge his reaction. “He said that it was a page-turner, that he read it very quickly, and he laughed a lot. He also said [the character] reminded him of the women of his life. That made me feel confident about the project,’’ Kiarostami says. After the film was completed, the director knew he was right about his initial intuition. “The difference of language and culture doesn’t matter as much as the truth of people,’’ he says.

Indeed, with his films, Kiarostami hopes to bridge the enormous gulf he believes exists between the West’s perception of Iran and the reality on the ground — “the way people live and who they are and what their everyday life is like,’’ he says.

“The politicians and the authorities on both sides want these misunderstandings to perpetuate,’’ he says. “So when I make a film like ‘Certified Copy,’ what I try and show is that there is no difference between an Iranian man or woman and an Italian, English, French, or American person. We’re all human beings. And we all have the same issues, the same problems, the same joys, the same pains.’’

Still, the current political situation in Iran for artists and filmmakers is a perilous one. For nearly 15 years, the Iranian government has not permitted Kiarostami’s films to be shown in his native country, nor is he officially allowed to make movies there. Since the Green Revolution uprising in 2009, matters have become even more precarious. In December, the government sentenced fellow filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof to six years in prison “for propaganda against the state’’ and banned Panahi from directing or writing movies for the next 20 years. An international outcry ensued, but the Iranian government has not relented.

Kiarostami, however, insists that he will not be deterred, that it’s paramount he and other Iranian artists continue to create. “We have a choice. Either you can go on making films — no matter what restrictions or what difficult conditions — or you can stop making films and enter a political fight. For me, I choose to go on making films, because I do believe that my country and my people need that access to art, to films, and to culture that will help them change their [political] situation in the long term. This is where I see my mission.’’

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

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