A Real Thing, Or At Least A Splendid Facsimile

Performance, Art: William Shimell and Juliette Binoche play an author and a gallery owner in an Abbas Kiarostami romance that is as allusive as it is elusive.

Performance, Art: William Shimell and Juliette Binoche play an author and a gallery owner in an Abbas Kiarostami romance that is as allusive as it is elusive. Laurent Thurin Nal /IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption Laurent Thurin Nal /IFC Films

Certified Copy

  • Director: Abbas Kiarostami
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 106 minutes

Not rated.

With: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell

(Recommended)

Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy opens at a book-signing in Tuscany, where a middle-aged British author, played by the opera singer William Shimell, is promoting an essay-book about the artistic value of facsimiles. He finds an eager audience in an antiques dealer from Arezzo (Juliette Binoche), and they decide to spend the afternoon in each other's company.

They talk in the car. They talk in a museum. They talk in a cafe, a restaurant and a hotel. It's all very simple, following — or, to use the film's terms, copying — the walk-and-talk template of European art-house classics by Eric Rohmer, not to mention imitators of more recent vintage, among them Richard Linklater's Before Sunset.

How, then, does Certified Copy evolve into a film as audacious and radical as any likely to see theaters this year?

The answer is best discovered fresh, without any knowledge of the ingenious structural surprise that turns the entire film on its head. (That's your cue to leave, adventurous moviegoers, and experience that surprise for yourself.) Suffice it to say that the term "deceptively simple" has rarely been more apt, as a couple we understand to be strangers turn out to be anything but — and the context and meaning of their conversation shifts dramatically in kind. And Kiarostami accomplishes this so matter-of-factly, without any obvious visual markers, that we're left as unmoored as a balloon cut from ribbon, trying to reconcile two realities that are fundamentally incompatible.

That spirit of experimentation is common to Kiarostami, an Iranian modernist making his first film in the West. The director has spent much of his career deconstructing the form and challenging the audience's assumptions: His 1990 film Close-Up, for example, confused the line between documentary and fiction by mixing nonprofessional actors and staged scenes with actual people and real-life trial footage. His Palme D'Or-winning A Taste Of Cherry, from 1997, takes place almost entirely in a taxicab, but pulls back the curtain in a coda that lays its essential artificiality bare.

"There are no immutable truths in art," claims Shimell's character at the book reading, and if you're looking for a skeleton key to unlock the mysteries of Certified Copy, that's as good a one as any. The real-or-not question has become a pet theme in movies over the past decade, even infiltrating the mainstream in the form of brainy spectacles like The Matrix and Inception, but Kiarostami has more on his mind than mere gamesmanship. The "truth" in Certified Copy may be mutable, but the conversation is lively and contentious, and the emotions are devastatingly real, carried across by two actors who suggest both the right amount of curiosity in the beginning and a shared history when the time calls for it.

After abandoning his formal mastery for digital projects like 2002's Ten, shot entirely through cameras mounted on a car dashboard, the Kiarostami of old returns for Certified Copy. The Tuscan villages provide a lovely backdrop — and Binoche, as ever, an even lovelier foreground — but Kiarostami enforces the film's subtly disorienting nature by shooting through reflective surfaces and making keen use of off-screen space. There's not an uninteresting shot in the entire film, yet the style never distracts or calls undue attention to itself. It simply frames the conversation.

And what a conversation it is. Shimell's essay alone leads to fascinating and contentious arguments over fake jewelry and Andy Warhol exhibits, and talk of truth and authenticity bleed into more personal ruminations on love and beauty, and on what happens to a relationship over time. Whether its characters are strangers or have been married for 15 years makes for an intriguing puzzle, but Certified Copy is about the mysteries of the heart, too, which in their own way are just as unsolvable. (Recommended)

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