Certified Copy (2011): Kiarostami Romantic Puzzle Drama, Starring Juliette Binoche and Opera Singer William Shilmell

By Patrick McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2010 (In Competition)–The latest work from Abbas Kiarostami, arguably Iran’s best known and most accomplished director, is Certified Copy, an art-house romantic drama that feels deceptively simple—there are only two characters—but actually boasts a multi-layered narrative with strong philosophical and existential overtones.

Though it’s lushly shot in Italy and features two European stars, French actress Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, the British opera singer (here in his feature debut dramatic role), “Certified Copy” bears some of the recurrent thematic concerns of Kiarostami’s work over the past four decades. It’s a poignant yet playful meditation on the fine line between art and life, artifice and reality, realism and surrealism, original work versus first and second rate copies.

World premiering at the 2010 Cannes Film fest, where Juliette Binoche deservedly won the Best Actress, “Certified Copy played at the Toronto Film Fest, New York Film Fest, AFI, and other prestigious venues. The film, which has already played in Europe, will be released stateside March 11 with a national rollout to follow. It will simultaneously be accessible nationwide on IFC Films’ VOD (Video On Demand) platform, available to over 50 million homes in all major markets.

William Shimell makes his screen debut as a serious, a bit stiff academic James Miller. Visiting Arezzo in Tuscany, Miller discusses a new book, lecturing on authenticity and fakery in art. Rather provocatively, he suggests that copies can be just as worthwhile artistically as the original works

In the audience, we notice an attractive antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche), who arrives late and is nervous about her teenage son (who’s also there). Seemingly taken by him, she invites him afterwards to her place.

Miller visits her gallery to examine her art works, and she proposes to take tour the countryside. Like many of Kiarostami’s features, a god deal of the narrative is set on the road within the car, when the couple takes its time and drives to the magnificent hilly town of Lucignano.

They talk about serious and less serious matters, make stops at mostly empty restaurants and cafes, where the owners assume they are a married couple. Some of the locals ask direct questions about their bond, and neither of them denies or confirms what exactly they have in common.
Occasionally, when he is mistaken to be her husband during their trip, they even adopt the assumption for themselves and continue their afternoon, discussing love, life and art, and increasingly behaving like a long-married couple. At one point, they check into a hotel room, where their chat becomes more personal and initimate.

As writer and director, Kiarostami positions us in a healthy state of suspense, keep guessing as the mysterious and mythic saga unfolds, what exactly the two share in common?

Is their relationship genuine or fake? Are they aware of their role playing or is it just an endless teasing game? How long have they known each other? Is there rendezvous just a chance meeting?

Making his first feature outside of his native Iran, Kiarostami returns to narrative filmmaking after a decade of experimental video projects. “Certified Copy” received a lot of publicity as the first European, English-speaking, feature from the Iranian director. Both thematically and visually, the movie evokes Roberto Rossellini’s 1953 masterpiece, “Voyage to Italy” (also known as “Strangers”), a meditative tale featuring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as a married couple trying to reconcile their faltering relationship while driving through Italy.

Considering that there are only two characters on screen, the picture is never boring or verbose. The dialogue is almost always captivating in the insights it offers about the personalities and past lives of the couple.

The luminously beautiful Binoche may be one of the few actresses who has never given a false or a bad performance. Just looking and listening to her offers tremendous pleasure, even in quiet, silent scenes, where she simply stares into the camera, registering an ambiguous expression on her face, which is open to divergent, even contradictory interpretations.

Offering the rare combo of sensual and cerebral pleasures, “Certified Copy,” which is elegantly shot and precisely framed, could be read as a romantic fable about second chances.