The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s delicious brain tickler, “Certified Copy,” is an endless hall of mirrors whose reflections multiply as its story of a middle-aged couple driving through Tuscany carries them into a metaphysical labyrinth.
The travelers are a beautiful, high-strung woman, identified only as Elle or She (Juliette Binoche), who runs an antiques shop in Arezzo, and a British author, James Miller (the operatic baritone William Shimell), whom she meets after he gives a lecture on his new book, “Certified Copy.”
James’s treatise, a tricky, erudite consideration of artistic authenticity, ponders why a reproduction is not considered as good as the original, then takes that question of copies and originals in any number of directions to illustrate his conviction that nothing is ever really new.
Elle, a single mother with a 10-year-old son, has eyes for James. After the lecture, the two drive in her car to the village of Lucignano and along the way debate aesthetics and begin to bicker. When they stop at a trattoria in Lucignano, the cafe owner assumes that they are a long-married couple and shares her traditional views of men, women and marriage. A statue in the village square of a woman serenely resting her head on a man’s shoulder is scrutinized for its fundamental truth about the sexes. After the meal, during which James has a hissy fit about the wine, he and Elle slowly fall into the roles the waitress has assigned them.
By the time they visit a hotel in which Elle insists they spent their wedding night, you are uncertain whether they are collaborating in mutual playacting or if their initial meeting was actually a reunion after a long separation. If their 15-year “marriage” is just a facsimile, then the game they are playing, in which emotional darts are tossed, seems less and less frivolous.
Before the trattoria the main topic of conversation — authenticity in art — is a continuation of James’s lecture, during which Elle pointedly challenged his ideas. Artworks that were presumed to be originals and later found out to be forgeries are discussed.
The debate leaps into a broader contemplation of art versus life. Isn’t the Mona Lisa a reproduction of its model? Why does an everyday object as depicted by Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol take on value when exhibited in a museum? Aren’t we all DNA “replicas” of our ancestors? What does it imply about art and reality that not one of the gorgeous cypress trees lining the road they travel is like any other? Does that make each an original work of art?
“Certified Copy,”Mr. Kiarostami’s first feature film made outside his native Iran, is such a conspicuous leap from neo-Realism to European modernism, it sometimes feels like a dry comic parody. As the movie goes along, it begins to deconstruct itself by posing as a cinematic homage, or copy, if you will, of European art films of the 1950s and ’60s, with contemporary echoes.
Despite its modernist sensibility, there is little reason to be intimidated, unless you find the character of James abhorrent. An arrogant, short-tempered blowhard flaunting a cultivated charm, he fatuously declares at one point that human beings are the only species to have forgotten that pleasure is the purpose of existence.
Yet he dwells inside his head. The concept for his book, he remarks, was just an idea that occurred to him during a visit to Florence. Moving through one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, he is unable to see what is in front of him or to begin to live in the moment. He is so out of touch with sensuous reality that in the restaurant he fails to notice when Elle disappears to put on lipstick and dangling earrings and returns all aglow.
The voluptuous appeal of Lucignano, a village where young couples flock to marry in a local chapel, is lost on him. His first impulse is to sneer at the naïveté of newlyweds who believe that their happiness will never end. The place is a vibrant paradise of stunning architecture, ringing church bells and cooing pigeons; the scented, sun-drenched atmosphere overflows with romantic promise.
Ms. Binoche, whose performance won the Cannes Film Festival award for best actress last spring, humanizes the film and lends its theoretical substructure flesh and blood and emotional weight. For all her prickliness, Elle, who speaks fluent English, French and Italian, may be at home in the world of ideas but she is also a woman of deep feeling. She brings “Certified Copy” to intense, pulsing life.
“Certified Copy,” Abbas Kiarostami‘s lovely labyrinth of a film, is best seen without having read reviews that divulge what the director reveals — or hints at — only gradually (this one won’t). The two-hander’s teases and twists carry an electric charge, particularly in the riveting performance of Juliette Binoche, by turns dithery, fevered and open-hearted.
She plays the unnamed French owner of an antique shop in Tuscany, raising a tween son who challenges her every move — when he bothers to look up from his video game. The film’s action consists of the day she spends with a British author, James Miller (opera singer William Shimell), whose new book gives the film its title. A sort of middle-aged “Before Sunrise” unfolds, meandering and talky. But from the get-go these characters’ colloquy is a mutual provocation, not a romantic seduction.
A baffling undercurrent of accusation keeps their exchanges off-balance and out of sync, although on the surface they would seem a good fit: two good-looking, independent, ferociously intelligent people. In his screen debut, Shimell is perhaps too much of a buttoned-up cipher, but he conveys a level of preoccupation that suits this role.
Like its central couple, the film is a volatile mix of the studied and deeply felt. James’ book of art criticism concerns the overvaluation of “authenticity” when nearly everything — human behavior as well as our artifacts — is a form of reproduction, an attempt to copy or recapture what has gone before. The film itself can be viewed as an outsider’s reproduction of European art-house cinema, complete with a character called She.
Kiarostami (“Taste of Cherry”) contributed memorable segments to the Western compilation films “Tickets” and “Lumière & Company,” but “Certified Copy” is the first feature he’s made outside his native Iran. Abetted by the elegant camerawork of cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, he resists Tuscan travelogue clichés and zeros in on place as a repository of memory and emotion.
Following his characters’ serpentine path through the hilltop village of Lucignano — known for its art forgeries and weddings — he also deconstructs romance. In a moment of comic poignancy and startling beauty, young newlyweds orchestrate a group photograph, and everyone performs for the camera. After a stranger’s unbidden insights (or are they misconceptions?), the story breaks open, into what might be a plaintive masquerade or a deeper level of truth. Role-play and ritual offer the illusion of solid ground in an endless, aching sea.