Love and art are two of the more mysterious products of the human mind -- both come from deep within us, but they're often profoundly confusing and chaotic, and as much as people enjoy talking about them, there are precious few absolutes one can set down either about the creative process or what brings people together. The celebrated Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami ponders both the nature of art and beauty as well as the mysteries of the human heart in Copie Conforme (aka Certified Copy), a film that revels in what's unknown and unknowable as much as it concerns what we see and hear on the screen.
Certified Copy opens with James Miller (William Shimell), a British academic and author, giving a lecture at a small gallery in Italy where he's discussing his new book, "Certified Copy," though he mentions that his original title was "Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy." James' book concerns the notion of authenticity and originality in art, taking the tack that sometimes the copy can lead us to a better understanding of the original, and that beauty and a satisfying aesthetic experience are as important, perhaps more so, than coming up with a new and innovative idea. Attending the lecture is a beautiful woman (Juliette Binoche) who owns a boutique and art space in town; while she's forced to leave after a few minutes by her fidgety son, she's clearly fascinated by James, and arranges to meet him before he leaves town. The woman (whose name is never mentioned) meets James at her shop, they drive to a Tuscan village long favored by couples getting married, and they visit a museum where the jewel of the collection is a centuries-old painting still revered by the community even after it was proven to be a forgery. After a great deal of conversation, which reveals that their differences are as strong as their points of agreement, the two stop in a café, and when James has to step out to take a telephone call, the elderly owner tells the woman that she can tell James is a good husband. The woman plays along, discussing the ups and downs of her marriage and her frustrations with their relationship with the proprietor. When James returns, the woman tells him they were talking about their marriage, and he falls right in line. Over the next several hours, they speak at length about their 15 years together, their son, what brought them together, and the emotional distance that's driving them apart. Their troubled relationship seems so authentic -- from the memories of their honeymoon to a spat over him falling asleep on their anniversary -- that it raises the question of which part of their story is real and which is being made up for the entertainment of others.
Certified Copy begins as the story of two strangers obviously attracted to one another, and roughly a day later they're trying to make sense of a 15-year marriage that's on its last legs, and the splice between the two sides of their story is so seamless that you might find yourself wondering if you've missed some bit of significant dialogue that explains how these people suddenly became husband and wife. Don't worry, it isn't there; Kiarostami is just playing on the notions of authenticity and illusion that bring these two characters together, and much of what this couple has to say about one another is rooted in romantic gamesmanship and the different ways in which two people can perceive and recall the same circumstances. At the same time, the skill with which Kiarostami hides the lines in the story doesn't make the shift any less puzzling, especially given the gravity with which the characters embrace their new roles. Doubtless this conceit wouldn't work nearly as well if Kiarostami's principal actors weren't so strong and commanding. Juliette Binoche is thoroughly captivating as the unnamed woman infatuated with James; she brings a remarkable intelligence, passion, and charm to the role, making her moods seem entirely sincere even when we're supposed to wonder if she's making things up, and her back-and-forth with William Shimell is impressive, especially considering they're the only people onscreen through much of the running time. Shimell's confidence and bluster as James is all the more remarkable considering this is his first film role, and that he's best known as an operatic baritone; it speaks well of his talents that he can play off one of the best screen actresses alive in such close quarters and look comfortable doing it. The film looks beautiful and utterly naturalistic at once, as Luca Bigazzi's camerawork catches the nooks and crannies of the rustic Tuscan village and the expressive landscapes of the actors' faces with unpolished elegance. Kiarostami's screenplay approaches this material with an admirable degree of wit and intelligence, but his characters are just realistic enough to be petty and bitter as the marriage starts to fall apart, and while what they have to say is frequently interesting, it's often too academic for its own good. Art and romance are products of both the heart and the head, and as strong as Certified Copy is, it's Binoche and Shimell who give this film heart; the brain, meanwhile, is working a bit too hard to let the emotions go where they want, making the final product fascinating while not being as purely enjoyable as it could have been.