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French stars steal spotlight in mysteries of love and faith

Juliette Binoche and Lambert Wilson brought star power to the red carpet Tuesday at screenings of their respective films, Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy and Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men. Watch interview with Kiarostami (see main video).


The red carpet got a dose of French glamour Tuesday, as Juliette Binoche and Lambert Wilson hit the Croisette to support the in-competition entries they headline. Binoche, one of France's most beloved actresses, is the leading lady in Iranian Abbas Kiarostami's romantic puzzle Certified Copy, while Wilson stars in Frenchman Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux). These two very different films are both mysteries of a sort, and while neither provides much in the way of concrete answers, both were worthy additions to a generally unexceptional line-up.

Binoche is in nearly every frame of the Italy-set Certified Copy, the first film Kiarostami (who won the Palme dOr in 1997 for Taste of Cherry) has shot outside his native Iran. The movie opens with a French gallery owner (Binoche) attending a talk by an English art critic (opera singer William Shimell, grappling admirably with a tricky first screen role). The nature of the relationship between the two characters, who embark on a day-long road trip into the Tuscan countryside, is the enigma at the heart of the film.

1992 : Rossellini Prize at Cannes for his career
1997 : Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Ta'M E Guilass (The Taste of Cherry)
1997 : Unesco bestowed upon him the "Fellini" medal.
1999: Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Mostra for "The Wind Will Take Us Away"

We are initially led to believe the two are strangers, as they engage in a debate concerning original versus imitation art; their exchange is charged with awkwardly flirtatious body language. But a shift midway through Certified Copy makes us question who exactly these two people are to each other, and Kiarostami sends us into the second half with a totally new conception of his characters.

It is a neat trick, as Kiarostami pushes the viewer to apply the theme introduced in the film's first part (what is real versus what is fake) to the couple onscreen. Certified Copy plays like an exercise, and one whose talky script should have been tightened, but it's a provocative and strikingly shot one; the director frequently films his actors separately, and, in face-on close-ups, urges us to search for clues in their expressions. Binoche is a pleasure to watch, revealing layers of desire, anger and regret.

Lambert Wilson gives a less expressive, though perfectly adequate, performance as the head of a monastery in Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men, a haunting French drama about the 1996 murder of seven French Trappist monks in Algeria. Rather than serving up a pompous historical film inflated with importance and flash, Beauvois keeps things hushed and spare, adopting a style that reflects the quiet, ritualized lifestyle of his characters. The approach enables him to build tension slowly, drawing us into the daily lives of these men as they pray, eat together, and interact peacefully with their Muslim neighbours -- until the threat of Islamic extremism begins seeping into their bubble.

1995 : N'oublie pas que tu vas mourir, Jury Prize at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival
2000 : Selon Matthieu
2005 : The Young Lieutenant
2010 : Of Gods and Men

Thoughtful and intelligent as Of Gods and Men is, Beauvois falters when it comes to bringing us into the strange workings of a faith that empowers the monks to look death in the face serenely. They're too uniformly virtuous to be truly interesting as characters, and the process by which they come to their decision lacks drama. In the film, the conflict they struggle with is a cut-and-dry and not very cinematic tug-of-war between instincts of self-preservation and devotion to God.

He gets at something more complex in a sublime scene near the end, in which the monks gather for what will be their last supper: Beauvois films them one-by-one in close-up, as they sip wine and listen to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, the horror of their fate dawning on them as they savour their last earthly pleasures. Flawed as it is, Beauvois' mystery stays with you long after you've shrugged off Kiarostami's.


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