Just another Tuscan love story. Does that sound mundane? Consider these exotic elements: a voluptuous Frenchwoman (Juliette Binoche), an intellectual Brit (opera singer William Shimell, in his film debut), and a genius Iranian director working outside his native country, with a palpable sense of liberation, for the first time (Abbas Kiarostami).
Still not enough? Here’s the Certified Copy setup: She runs a gallery in an Italian village, and is the mother of a ten-year-old son; he’s the visiting author of a book about the value of authenticity in art, the rarity of newness. “Certified Copy” is the name of the book. They fall into a leisurely day together. It’s a flirtatious, combative first meeting, full of possibilities. One of which is a chance that in fact they’ve been married to each other all along.
“In fact” is no easy proposition with Kiarostami, whose fans should curl with glee at this latest of his poetic dispatches from the fact-fiction frontier. Imagine the phrase less as assertion of certifiable truth than as obligatory preface to a needling narrative contradiction. The couple is playing at a marriage, as couples sometimes do. But is the playing a way of mocking, or of discovering anew? Like any meaningful relationship, theirs will be a puzzle of loving and gaming and sometimes getting hurt. Resolution per se will remain elusive, as if to affirm an idea that aesthetic and philosophical satisfactions may be more important than narrative ones.
And so, with its flow of half-seeable reflections gliding along the woman’s windshield while she drives the man around, Certified Copy likewise shimmers with the flashback-glints of other cinematic precedents. The same fans, and the film encyclopedists, will think of Last Year at Marienbad or L’Avventura, among others. Just another Euro-modernist art film. Does that sound unnecessary? Yet the romance is real enough, if the caress of Mediterranean light and the chorus of persistent birdsong can be any indication. Besides, Kiarostami demands more of himself than merely a self-enclosing gimmick for its own sake. There is generosity here; the coyness is a come on. It is the rarest of moviemakers who gets the head and the heart swimming at once.
Such delicate sophistication — both freewheeling and well controlled — might not work but for the astonishing aliveness of Binoche, longstanding muse to many a great director, who seems to get more beautiful and maturely sensual with every performance. Once again her vitality and command are revelatory. Meanwhile Shimell, an accomplished and charismatic performer here rendered sometimes awkward by an unfamiliar medium, seems precisely plausible as an aesthete whose intellect ironically has thwarted his receptivity to sensual pleasure — the very man who might fail to appreciate this woman. Early on, he explains that he wrote the book to convince himself of his own idea. “There’s nothing simple about being simple,” he later says, with a telling combination of weariness and self-satisfaction. Later still, she asks: “If we were a bit more tolerant of each other’s weaknesses we’d be less alone, don’t you think?”
Although a display is made of this relationship, Kiarostami also honors its privacy. There are some exchanges to which only the players themselves are privileged. Thus does the display become even more intimate, more ambiguous — and just another of those ephemeral roaming-couples films, one long enchanted walk-and-talk. Does that sound great or what?