A Face in the Crowd
Matt Connolly on Juliette Binoche in Shirin

The premise of Shirin can seem like the setup to a joke: “A hundred of Iran’s most notable actresses and Juliette Binoche walk into a movie theater…” Specifically, Binoche forms but one of the many close-ups that structure Abbas Kiarostami’s 2008 feature—an “adaptation” of the 12th-century Persian poem “Khosrov and Shirin” in which the camera is focused entirely on the faces of female audience members watching the “movie” offscreen. For a work so seemingly steeped in the mythology, film culture, and spectatorial practices of Iranian cinema, seeing Binoche proves a bit jarring. What, exactly, is she doing here? Critical writing on the film tends to note her appearance in passing before moving on to other matters. Kiarostami himself chalks up her role to a happy accident, explaining that Binoche was a guest at his home when he shot the film and that he simply asked her to participate.

It is accurate and even understandable to view Binoche as an undifferentiated tile in the film’s mosaic of emotive faces. Her performance impresses in part for how thoroughly it melds with the overall tenor of Kiarostami’s vision and the communal spirit of her fellow actresses. To disregard the specificity of Binoche’s presence, however, is both to downplay the career shifts that a film like Shirin represented for her in the mid-2000s and to ignore how even the most conscientious of Western cinephiles bring culturally specific baggage and blind spots to the global cinema we so eagerly consume. Just as Shirin’s larger aesthetic project melds a celebration of visceral viewer response with a contemplation of cinematic artifice, Binoche’s performance reflects both sincere emotion and self-conscious abstraction, a tear-streaked visage tenderly framed by modernist air quotes.

Shirin’s aesthetic project entails an extended meditation on the affective attachments formed in the dark of a movie theater. Kiarostami fashions the audio for his adaptation of “Khosrov and Shirin”—a tragic love story between a Persian prince and an Armenian princess—in a manner both direct and diffuse. The aural snippets we hear have an often-melodramatic bluntness: the metallic unsheathing of weapons; the squishing of gutted bodies; the wailing of a devastated lover. At the same time, the lack of visual corollaries to these sounds and the exclusive focus upon the faces of the audience makes it difficult to follow the film-within-a-film with any depth. Our understanding primarily comes through the reactions of the women watching, whose movements between serene contemplation, wide-eyed fascination, and teary devastation clarify the unseen movie’s essential substance as much as they reflect it. Just as often, however, Shirin seems to invite us to detach from narrative concerns and commune entirely with the women’s responses. Kiarostami films all of them in centered close-ups, their faces framed by chadors of varying colors and the direction of their gazes reflecting slightly different spatial relationships to the screen. This similarity of framing and mise-en-scène can produce moments of striking emotional symbiosis while simultaneously highlighting small differences in reaction and self-presentation.

In this respect, Binoche slips into this assembly of spectators with striking self-effacement. She wears a dark-colored head covering with stray bangs sticking out and (as Kiarostami points out in an interview) no makeup. Framed in the same centered close-up as her fellow viewers, she turns up three times across the film, with total screen time clocking in around 70 seconds. These appearances link up with increasingly heart-rending stretches within “Khosrov and Shirin,” allowing Binoche to shift from attentive concentration to restrained melancholy to moist-eyed sorrow. As with the multitude of other women on-screen, Binoche’s slightest facial and bodily adjustments—a shift in her seat, a flexing of her jaw—take on a heightened sense of import and drama. Kiarostami’s frequent cutting between his subjects also links Binoche’s reactions to those of her fellow viewers, forming a poignant communal bond particularly in moments of peak emotional intensity. Binoche features prominently, for instance, in the succession of quietly weeping faces that seem to be addressed by the on-screen Shirin in a climactic monologue to her “grieving sisters”: “You listen to my story and you cry. Through these tears, I see your eyes. Are you shedding these tears for me, Shirin? Or for the Shirin that hides in each one of you?”

Shirin also frames its on-screen women in ways that link to Kiarostami’s long-standing meta-textual gamesmanship. As noted above, all of the on-screen audience members are working actresses—a choice which itself frames their reactions to the film-within-a-film as a combination of visceral response and professional appreciation. Going further still, Kiarostami filmed the actresses responding not to any film-specific visual or audio cue but rather a series of dots on a board above the camera. The director reportedly did not even decide on “Khosrov and Shirin” as the film the performers would be “responding to” until he finished shooting their reaction shots. One would not know this watching Shirin in a vacuum, itself a notable choice given how Kiarostami has shown a willingness to incorporate the production process into the diegesis of his films. Just as the inclusion of on-set footage at the end of Taste of Cherry (1997) paradoxically strengthens the emotional impact of the film’s narrative conclusion, knowledge of Shirin’s construction deepens its ruminations on the nature of cinematic affect. Knowing that Binoche and her fellow actresses sculpt their “visceral” responses to a nonexistent film in real time proves an implicit recognition of their actorly skills, not to mention a quietly feminist comment on how female viewers (seemingly reacting to male-authored imagery) are in fact actively shaping the film’s emotional core.

For all of Shirin’s democratically dispersed engagement with an array of actresses, however, there’s no denying the sheer fact of “La Binoche.” How could there be? A star of French cinema since the late 1980s, an Academy Award winner, a collaborator with some of Europe’s most acclaimed auteurs—the force of her on-screen magnetism and the potency of her reputation inevitably shifts Shirin’s center of gravity. More specifically, the 2008 release of Shirin helped to codify a discernible shift in the trajectory of Binoche’s career. Following her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The English Patient in 1997, Binoche devoted more of her talents to projects that, whatever one might think of their individual charms or flaws, can be safely deemed “middlebrow.” (Chocolat [2000] is the go-to example, but titles such as Jet Lag [2002], In My Country [2004], and Bee Season [2005] also fit this post-Oscar pattern.) To be clear, Binoche also worked with the likes of Michael Haneke and Abel Ferrara during this period, complicating any simplistic sell-out narrative. Still, her career in the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s included more than the occasional solid, forgettable film that invited admiration of Binoche’s charisma and little more.

Binoche began to shift this trajectory in the mid-2000s in ways both familiar and novel. As she had done since her breakout performance in André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous (1985), Binoche increasingly sought out art-cinema auteurs as collaborators, taking roles that expanded and complicated her on-screen persona. While some of these filmmakers worked within the higher echelons of European film, however, Binoche also paired with established masters of Taiwanese and Iranian cinema: Hou Hsiao-hsein, in whose Flight of the Red Balloon Binoche starred in 2007; and Kiarostami, who would direct Binoche in both Shirin and 2010’s Certified Copy. Beyond the exceedingly high quality of all three films, these cross-continental pairings benefited both the filmmakers and the actress. For Hou and Kiarostami, their Binoche-led titles reflected their expansions into a more globalized art cinema milieu, with settings, actors, and narrative concerns that differed in key respects from work based in their respective home countries. For Binoche, her creative partnerships with Hou and Kiarostami at once reflected a continuation of her career-spanning engagement with challenging and acclaimed directors and inflected that instinct with a newfound cultural expansiveness and daring. Shirin is in many ways the least complex of these performances, and yet its symbolic value within the larger arc of her career proves irresistible. Here is “La Binoche,” who appears silently in a chador, communing with dozens of fellow actresses and occupying less than 90 seconds of screen time. The humbleness of her presence, the simplicity of her appearance, the matter-of-factness of her emotional responses—collectively, these markers reflect an actress willing to cross literal and cultural borders for the advancement of her art and bolster the narrative of an actress boldly stepping into a new phase of her career.

At the same time, Binoche’s presence in Shirin exposes the perhaps-unexamined assumptions of Western art cinemagoers as much as it showcases Binoche’s own shifting star persona. For such viewers (and I count myself within this category), Binoche acts a kind of cineaste touchstone in Shirin, providing an instantly recognizable face whose recontextualization within a culturally specific milieu prompts the extratextual musings outlined above. Such reactions to Binoche’s brief on-screen appearances, however, rest implicitly on the idea that the majority of the other women in Shirin do not inspire such meta-commentary. The Western art-cinema viewer likely does not know the career arc and cultural meanings of the bevy of noted Iranian actresses featured in Shirin, or perhaps even (as this viewer did not upon first viewing) that they are professional actresses at all. They more easily slip into the category of international (i.e., non-European) cinema in which the filmmaker provides the organizing logic for the engaged cineaste, with actors who are often assumed to be non or semi-professional performers and therefore provide an “authenticity” and “immediacy” that stand in counterpoint to the given auteur’s more considered aesthetic.

There can be some truth to this assumption—Kiarostami famously utilized nonprofessionals throughout his filmography—but it can easily lapse into a kind of unseemly dichotomy. European art cinema stars like Binoche are multifaceted artists, purveyors of craft, self-conscious seekers of transnational collaboration; while actors in non-Western art cinema are “pure” embodiments of reality, windows onto lived experience, and inevitably frozen within their national contexts. And while Binoche’s justly lauded, mid-2000s renaissance traded heavily on her work with Hou and Kiarostami, it’s worth noting that her most frequent and lauded artistic partnerships since the late-2000s have almost exclusively been with French auteurs: Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont (though she will appear in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s forthcoming The Truth). One does not often see an Iranian actress afforded such ease of international collaboration nor the power to turn away from it at will.

It’s difficult to know to what extent either Binoche or Kiarostami considered this dynamic when deciding to incorporate Binoche into Shirin. Furthermore, one might argue that it replicates the very Western-centric obliviousness criticized above to spill this much ink on the performance of a European actress that occupies roughly one percent of the film’s running time. If there is value to such analysis, it comes from its ability to pinpoint how Shirin celebrates the virtuosic reach of Binoche’s talents even as it underscores their limitations. To watch Binoche smile, sigh, and weep alongside her compatriots in artistic expression is to witness a moving vision of transcultural actorly kinship, not to mention appreciate the emissary-like role between European and Iranian cinema that Binoche both embodies and performs. And yet her presence cannot help but underscore the disjuncture of knowledge and affect that so many Western art-cinemagoers bring to Shirin. The chorus of cinephilic love silently performed by every single actress onscreen creates moments of singular, devastating unity—between the women and the screen, the women themselves, and the women and the audience. Whether that feeling holds when the lights go up is another question.