The Iranian-writer director Abbas Kiarostami has always been enthralled by the shifting planes of fantasy and reality. His latest film, "Certified Copy," is his fullest expression of that entrancement.
I am not often a big fan of modern cinematic fantasy-reality games, and "Certified Copy," which stars Juliette Binoche and opera-singer-turned-actor William Shimell, does not always escape the pitfalls of the genre (and it is a genre, one which stretches, to take an arbitrary measure, from "Last Year at Marienbad" to "Inception"). Many times during this film I would have been happy watching a straightforward rendering of a love story instead of the filigreed conceit that Kiarostami appears to set before us.
But despite the film's coy artiness and a lassitude that sometimes passes for soulfulness, "Certified Copy" is strangely haunting. Kiarostami is like a magician who shows you how he does it and still leaves you mesmerized. There's an effrontery to his method. He wants us to know that beyond the obvious magicmaking of movies is a deeper, more intangible, magic – the sensual inscrutability of imagery itself. The film is not so much about reality and fantasy but about deepening levels of reality.
Shimell's James Miller is a British art historian who shows up in Tuscany to lecture on his latest book, which is about – surprise – the aesthetic blurriness between originals and copies. Binoche's character, who goes unnamed, attends the lecture and invites James to her cellar shop filled with reproductions of original sculptures. From there she persuades him, although he has a train to catch, to drive with her into the countryside and sample a local cafe.
The day deepens and the couple's interactions shade from flirtation to a kind of charade of married life. Shopkeepers and passersby mistake them for an actual married couple (perhaps because they bicker so much). They are greeted by newly-weds and by an old couple, all of whom stir in them feelings of regret and nostalgia for a life that they have not, in fact, shared. At times their dialogue morphs from play-acting into the real thing, and we begin to wonder, along with the characters themselves, if what we are experiencing is a hallucination or, at the least, a massive folie à deux.
What keeps the film from becoming overbearingly arty is its acute psychological insightfulness. James and the woman may only know each other for a day but surely married couples, all couples, experience the dislocations these two only pretend to feel – the sense that your partner is a stranger, a co-actor, an impostor, a phantasm.
They have created a world within a world that is, in the end, for however long it lasts, a certified copy of the original. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)