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Certified Copy: A gorgeous puzzle box without a key

Juliette Binoche and William Shimmell in a scene from "Certified Copy"

3 out of 4 stars


Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's first venture into European art-house territory, Certified Copy, is a tricky thing. On the surface, it's about a romantic one-day interlude in Tuscany between a middle-aged couple - a touring English art critic named James Miller and a French woman who runs a local shop in Arezzo.

After a while, though, we start to realize we're on shifting ground. We're not really sure who the two people are, whether they knew each other before or are just pretending. Their long afternoon is filled with talk of copies and authenticity, and demonstrations of somewhat stereotypical male and female behaviour. Typical of the Iranian director's work, there are long driving scenes, philosophical bickering, and cases of mistaken identity.

We first meet Miller at a book reading for his new tome, Certified Copy, which he says he wanted to call Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy. During the conversation, the camera focuses on a woman in the audience (Binoche), who is pestered by her young son. She leaves the talk early but before she goes, she slips a note to a man sitting next to her, apparently an invitation to the author.

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Later, Miller comes to visit her shop, where she sells, of course, knock-offs of antiques. He has a train to catch at 9 p.m., but they agree to go for a drive. She takes him to the nearby town of Lucignano, a popular place for weddings, and en route, as we watch the background recede through the rear-view mirror, they begin to bicker. Though she has bought six copies of his book for friends, it's clear she doesn't agree with his views. She, who is never given a name, is a flirt and a chatterbox. He's aloof and slightly condescending, but obviously also attracted.

The aged proprietress of the coffee shop assumes they're a married couple and they go along with it. Are they playing at being strangers, or playing at having formerly been intimate? During coffee, he tells her that the book was inspired by an incident in Florence five years earlier, which seems to cause her a stab of pain. She says his story sounds "quite familiar" and adds "I wasn't well then."

The weight of marital baggage weighs heavily in the town, which is filled with wedding parties. When they stop to have a late lunch, they quarrel. She's reproachful and sad. But with whom are they fighting? The rules of the narrative seem to have changed in mid-stream: At first they are strangers; later they are a married couple, later possible new lovers.

Throughout, the characters are caught and reflected in mirrors and frames. In these layers of imitation, there's an echo of Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy, in which George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman play a couple on the verge of a divorce. There are other film allusions: At one point, Miller gets marital advice from an older gentleman, who turns out to be Jean-Claude Carrière, the screenwriter famous for his collaborations with Luis Bunuel. There are also echoes of Kiarostami's last feature, Ten, back in 2002, which also features a flighty, divorced mother of a bratty son, who complains about her former husband's work and absenteeism.

All this is diverting gamesmanship, and the Tuscan countryside and medieval villages are as gorgeous as their reputation. Ultimately, Certified Copy - with its unresolved loose ends - is a puzzle box without a key. Kiarostami's best films, from 1987's Where is the Friend's Home? to Where the Wind Blows (1999), are profoundly empathetic. By comparison, Certified Copy is a slighter but more ingratiating film and a chance to see a master filmmaker in uncharacteristic playful mode.

Certified Copy

  • Written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami
  • Starring Juliette Binoche and William Shimmell
  • Classification: PG
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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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