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Juliette Binoche and William Shimell on Certified Copy

A French Oscar winner and a British opera singer give life to Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece.

LOST EMBRACE Shimell and Binoche rejoice in an unusual connection.

A disarming, elusive sort-of romance set over the course of a Tuscan afternoon, Certified Copy pulls off an impossibly delicate balancing act. (The less revealed about what happens, the better.) But perhaps no magic in the movie, which opens in Chicago this weekend, is more improbable than the chemistry between its two stars—an unlikely pairing that may go down alongside Bogart and Bacall, Cassavetes and Rowlands, and Hawke and Delpy as one of the great couples in film history.

Before the film premiered at Cannes last year, it sounded like a mismatch: One of France’s biggest stars, Juliette Binoche, would play opposite William Shimell, a British opera singer who had never performed in a movie before. Still, both had worked with the director, Abbas Kiarostami: she in 2008’s avant-garde work Shirin, he in a 2008 production of Così fan tutte.

According to the actors, the disparity in their backgrounds worked in the film’s favor. “I think it’s Abbas’s reflection about men and women and how difficult it is to understand each other because we play on different scales,” Binoche says by phone from New York. “The woman takes the risk of exposing herself emotionally. The man wants to have a little more distance.” The fact that Shimell is an opera singer—used to showing off “his manhood and his knowledge,” Binoche explains—makes it only more devastating when he’s forced to let his guard down.

Shimell, on the phone from the U.K., describes himself as a “contained person” and says that one of the difficult aspects of the film was forcing himself to lose his temper at a critical moment. “Opera has its own language—a physical language, a theatrical language,” he says. “You’re performing in a very large building, on a large stage, you’re singing instead of speaking. The language in film is different in every way.

“I was having trouble just keeping up,” he adds, laughing. “I was just trying to survive, basically.”

The film follows both a single mother (Binoche) who sells antiques and the author (Shimell) of a book on artistic reproductions as they spend the day in churches, restaurants, small museums and piazzas. Their discussions cover art, relationships and the power of perception and illusion. But that doesn’t begin to describe the emotional force the movie gathers, which is something viewers ought to experience for themselves.

Although the movie has earned comparisons to Antonioni, Rossellini and Buñuel, Binoche says their primary reference points were less specific. “We talked frame, we talked emotions, we talked life, men and women,” she says. Referring to a crucial café scene, she suggests that the film as a whole may be a metaphor for film direction.

Shimell, a self-professed cinematic illiterate, says his primary viewing consists of watching Toy Story with his kids. But he does speak functional French and Italian, which helped on a multilingual film, a French-Italian-Iranian coproduction. (It’s Kiarostami’s first movie shot outside Iran.) Shimell says the initial script he received had been translated from Farsi to French to English and required cleaning up for idiomatic purposes.

Yet it’s impossible to imagine a more fluid finished product: It’s a film so slippery and sinuous that it leaves mysteries even after four viewings. “The thing that’s been interesting to me about this film is that everyone seems to see something different in it,” Shimell says. “And I don’t think that me defining what I think happened really helps anybody.”

Certified Copy opens Friday 18 at Landmark’s Century Centre and Renaissance Place.

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