Essential Viewing: The Good “Bad” Acting of Juliette Binoche

By Aaron Cutler and Kevin B. Lee

Certified Copy, the newest film by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami and starring Juliette Binoche (whose performance won the Best Actress prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival) will be open in limited release on Friday. In this video essay, Aaron Cutler compares Binoche’s performance with that in another movie, Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown. This video explores how both movies complicate ideas about acting – both in movies and in life – that we take for granted, with Binoche playing a crucial role in each.

Aaron’s script for the video is below. Watch Michael Haneke’s films, and films that delve into the art of acting,  by clicking on the links to the right.


This is bad acting. Or is it? How do we distinguish good film acting from bad? Two typical ways to judge are emotional credibility and stylistic consistency. But if those matter most, then two of Juliette Binoche’s best performances stink.

The actress offered one intense emotion after another in the first half of her film career in epic romances like 1991’s The Lovers on the Bridge and 1996’s The English Patient.

Director Michael Haneke, though, used her more wisely by casting her in 2000’s Code Unknown as…a bad actress.

Here her character, Anne, shoots a scene from a thriller in which a man says he’ll kill her just because she fell into his trap. She weeps and trembles, reactions that movies have led us to expect. Meanwhile, offscreen, both a young black man and a Romanian woman are being detained by the Paris police. Binoche’s tears, contrasted with the horrors we don’t see, suggest how unreal most movies are.

Haneke condemns the media’s misrepresentation of reality. Abbas Kiarostami sympathizes with it. Certified Copy, his new film, also casts Binoche as an actress, one playing different parts as the movie progresses.

Her motions in both films resemble each other—rapid head movements, a quick-draw smile. But the ways the directors use her differ.

In Haneke’s view, all people are subject to invisible power structures, and so even movie stars can drop in and out of sight. Society continues, long after one person leaves.

In Kiarostami’s view, though, reality differs from person to person. Certified Copy is the story of a couple, whose relationship is never really made clear to us. At first, we can tell that the two are just getting to know each other, and that she likes him and wants to be with him, through her roving eyes, open mouth, and nervous hands.

Later, we sense that they’ve actually known each other for a while, and that at some point he abandoned her. We know for sure that she’s angry with him by watching her yelling and slapping her hands.

We can tell that she wants him back by her tears.

What’s peculiar about this relationship is that not only does it evolve from scene to scene, but that Binoche’s character continuously presents a reality, which the man, played by William Shimell, either accepts or rejects. He becomes our on screen surrogate, responding to her as much as we do. The film becomes less about the facts of their relationship and more about whether we will believe her presentation of them.

Certified Copy helps us appreciate how film actors have two audiences—the other actors on screen, and the viewer off screen. While movie characters fight to get what they want from each other, the actors fight for viewers to accept their work. A key scene shows the couple arguing, with Kiarostami cutting back and forth between them. When the woman pleads to her husband, Binoche is also pleading with the camera. The woman pleading for her husband to believe in her becomes Binoche pleading for us to believe in her.

Both Code Unknown and Certified Copy are about people trying to will fantasy into reality, like the ideal of reaching another person, or the dream of finding and keeping love.

Human beings are naturally actors, playing whatever roles their circumstances demand. These two films suggest how we take performance for granted, both in the movies and in everyday life.

Binoche, an amazingly quick and energetic performer, is able to create dramatic circumstances, and then instantly change them. Her intensity and vulnerability invest us in realities while staying just outsized enough to keep us aware she’s creating them.

In both films we watch a character and an actress acting simultaneously. How much is real, how much fake? Perhaps the binaries don’t matter.

The answer lies in her gaze, and in ours.

Aaron Cutler is the co-author (with Rory O’Connor) of Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio. His film writings can be found

Watch Michael Haneke’s films, and films that delve into the art of acting,  by clicking on the links to the right.

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