Language barrier? What language barrier? To make the multilingual “Certified Copy,” a French actress, a British opera singer, an Iranian director, an Italian crew and a passel of translators gathered two years ago to shoot a relationship drama set in the picturesque hills of Tuscany.
Director Abbas Kiarostami (“Taste of Cherry”) cast Juliette Binoche and William Shimell as a couple – either husband and wife or complete strangers – engaged in an elaborate mind game over the course of a languid Sunday afternoon.
“If five people see the film,” Shimell says, “they’ll come out of the theater with five different ideas of what the movie is about.”
In his film acting debut, Shimell plays a stuffy intellectual whose latest book questions the distinctions between originals and copies. The opera star says his three-decade career as an A-list baritone was of “absolutely no use” in preparing him for the nuances of a small drama.
“When you perform in a space like the San Francisco Opera or the Met, they’re enormous spaces,” he says. “The people at the back have to see something, so you can’t act in a small way. It was such an enormous relief to make a film like this, because I was able to do nothing, really. It was enough to think the right thought and hopefully that reads onscreen.”
Joking that he got through the filming by “trying not to panic, above all else,” Shimell credits Binoche as an extraordinary scene partner.
“The thing about Juliette is that she is somehow transparent onscreen,” he says. “You can see what’s going on inside her character’s mind. To transmit that to somebody sitting in a movie theater is an extraordinary talent.”
Shimell enjoyed a nonverbal rapport with his Farsi-speaking director.
“Abbas has made several movies before with people with no acting experience,” he says, “so that was reassuring for me.”
Also reassuring: Shimell’s evening ritual.
“I got most of the crew on the gin and tonic,” he says, laughing. “We’d meet at half-past 6 every day at a little bar in the village and go through the gins rather faster than they were accustomed to.”
Beekeepers take center stage in “Queen of the Sun.” The new documentary by San Francisco activist-filmmaker Taggart Siegel is the latest in a swarm of movies addressing “colony collapse syndrome.” Recent entries – “Vanishing of the Bees,” “Colony” – all have documented the mysterious decline in honeybee populations.
Siegel’s movie examines the role played by pesticides, high-fructose corn syrup and exhaust fumes. In the context of humankind’s 10,000-year-old honey-harvesting practices, documentary talking head Michael Pollan (author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) examines the effect of highly mechanized bee factories in California’s Central Valley that confine the insects to plastic hives.
Every soldier has a story, and Hollywood writers are pitching in to help American GIs tell their tales.
The Veterans Writing Project teams movie scribes, including Ben Garant (“Night at the Museum”), Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and Evan Wright (“Generation Kill”), with troops who want to flex their writing muscles.
Hosted by the Writers Guild Foundation, the free workshop welcomes members of the military who have had tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. During last year’s inaugural West Coast workshop, foundation executive Chris Brancato discovered that the soldiers brought a broader range of narrative material than he’d anticipated.
“Out of the 51 veterans who participated, I expected 51 war stories to be told,” he says, “but it wasn’t like that at all.”
Instead, Brancato says, “These veterans wanted to get writing tips from the pros. There may be a ‘Hurt Locker’ that comes out of this, but that’s not our goal.
“What we found is, even if you’ve just come out of Fallujah and you’re writing a science-fiction movie set on the planet Zenon, it’s still therapeutic to write.”
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.