Abbas Kiarostami, Juliette Binoche, and Tuscany: The movie Certified Copy (IFC Films) had me at hello. Kiarostami is one of my favorite living directors, a master of understatement and nuance. His films sneak up on you slowly, accumulating detail after telling detail until, by the closing scenes, you realize with astonishment just how much the movie you've just seen has encompassed. The Iranian director has never before made a film set outside his native country, or worked with international movie stars like Binoche. His past work has tended to feature people, often children, who've never acted before, and to make extensive use of the landscape near his native Tehran. So his choice to collaborate with Binoche on a film set in Italy and scripted in French and English would have been worth seeing for the experiment alone. But Certified Copy is an experiment that really works—even if sometimes the lab animal is the viewer.
Though its picturesque European setting couldn't be more distant from the dusty exurbs of Tehran, the Kiarostami film Certified Copy most resembles is Close-Up(1990), the director's partly fictionalized restaging of a bizarre case of identity theft and fraud that occurred in real life. Kiarostami's great coup in Close-Up was to cast the man who actually perpetrated the crime as himself, thus implicitly raising the question: Is identity theft really all that different from acting? Certified Copy isn't the masterpiece that Close-Up was, but it lures the viewer into a comparably labyrinthine thicket of fakeouts, doubles, and assumed identities. If you like movies that induce a pleasurable state of vertigo, this is one of the great discoveries of the year.
A French woman (Juliette Binoche) living in a small Tuscan town goes with her young son (Adrian Moore) to hear a lecture by the English author (William Shimell) of a book called Certified Copy, which from what we hear of it seems to be an essay about authenticity and reproduction in the art world. During the talk, she slips her phone number to the author's friend, and later she and the writer spend a day together, driving through the countryside and sightseeing in a series of tiny villages. Are they on a date? Why does the woman seem at once flustered and hostile, and why does the man continue to accompany her even as the tone of their encounter grows increasingly ambivalent and strange?
The film's mystery deepens in a scene about half an hour in. As the man and woman sit together in a small cafe, the woman begins to pretend to the old Italian lady who runs the place that the writer is her husband and the father of her son. But is she really pretending? Suddenly the man and woman seem to know each other better than they did before—and like each other less. The question of who these two people are to each other, and who, therefore, they should be to us, becomes the movie's central source of suspense. At a church where they may or may not have been married 15 years earlier, a just-wed couple asks them to pose for a photo, which the man stubbornly resists, making for an excruciating encounter. Later, they have lunch in an empty restaurant, where they erupt into a blazing argument that seems too intimate, and too cruel, to be anything but a marital quarrel.
Juliette Binoche, who spent the early years of her career playing characters that matched her serene, painterly beauty, has recently chosen roles that require her to be argumentative, high-strung, and occasionally unpleasant (Olivier Assayas' Summer Hoursis another example.) I greatly enjoy this new, slightly nastier Binoche. Her character here is a whirlwind of contradictions, all of which the actress embodies with precision and humor: This lady is irritable, impetuous, and difficult to please—a bit of a pill really, but also capable of real moments of connection and warmth. Shimell, an opera baritone acting on-screen for the first time, hits just the right note of emotional reserve as her rigid but not unloving maybe-husband.
Watching Certified Copy isn't always a pleasurable experience, between the jarring narrative dislocation and the increasing tension between the two characters (who share the frame for nearly every second of the movie, their sense of claustrophobia echoing ours). But the movie's shifting, at times jagged, surface keeps refracting small moments of brilliance: insights about love and marriage, art and life, falsehood and truth. The man and woman are spouses, lovers, foes, and strangers all at once, and we're left to grapple with those simultaneously existing truths.
But the best part is that the movie never tells us this as plainly and prosaically as my last sentence just did. Though it features two epic talkers on a veritable bender of self-reflection, Certified Copy isn't a talky, cerebral "movie of ideas." Once you give yourself over to the admittedly demanding premise ("Here, care about these people and listen to what they say, even if you can never be quite sure who they are"), the movie delivers a real emotional punch. Kiarostami (who wrote as well as directed) isn't fracturing the narrative for the hell of it, as a sheer display of cinematic bravado. He's upending our expectations of what a movie character should be (a stable, identifiable persona played by one actor throughout the course of a film) in order to show us something about the movies and about life.