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That Obscure Subject of Desire

Certified Copy (2010)

Laurent Thurin Nal/Sundance Selects

Abbas Kiarostami has muddled our perception of reality with documentaries (“ABC Africa”), re-enactments (“Close-Up”) and vérité (“Ten”). He ventures further with “Certified Copy,” though this time through the dramatic form. For the first time, he’s working outside of his native Iran. The Tuscan town of Lucignano — with its cobblestone streets, rolling hills, sparkling fountains, old-world museums and cozy cafés — seems to be the perfect place for a love story. It’s certainly more conventional a movie setting than the dirt roads of Tehran. Casting an international star such as Juliette Binoche is also a first for the director. She appears opposite the dashing William Shimell, who looks, sounds and acts the part of a romantic lead — so much so that you’d never guess this is the first acting gig for the opera singer. Is a film less of a virtuoso work of fiction when nonprofessionals act in it? Perhaps Mr. Kiarostami wants us to ponder that for a moment.

Mr. Shimell plays James Miller, author of a book also titled “Certified Copy” that defends forged artwork because the fakes are equally capable of eliciting real sentimental responses. Ms. Binoche’s unidentified character first appears to be a fan at James’s speaking engagement. Turns out she wholly disapproves of his position, but some spark is palpable as her son (Adrian Moore) raises his head from his video game to muse on her romantic designs.

She invites James along to a museum that continues to display a painting even after the discovery 50 years ago that it’s a counterfeit. Along the way, a barista mistakes the pair for spouses, and Ms. Binoche’s character plays along by making up elaborate stories about their marriage. Soon the two start bickering as if they have indeed been married for 15 years. Or have they? Glenn Kenny opined that a cameo by Luis Buñuel’s longtime screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière suggests the film pays homage to “That Obscure Object of Desire.” In other words, “Certified Copy” plays out a bit like a romantic comedy directed by David Lynch with its distinct two-halves connected by a thread.

The nature of the film’s central relationship is constantly shifting as if an obligatory clichéd set-piece is playing out against each corresponding backdrop: meet-cute in the antique shop, marital ennui at the café, jilted love at the restaurant, serendipity at the sculpted fountain and bittersweet rendezvous at the small inn.

Ms. Binoche, who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, is in top form, and Mr. Shimell certainly holds his own. But the actor and the amateur are both gamely role-playing. While the people those characters encounter readily buy into their story as moviegoers ordinarily would, Mr. Kiarostami invites his viewers to second-guess his film and their own perceptions.

Certified Copy

Opens on Sept. 3 in Britain and on March 11, 2011 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami; written by Mr. Kiarostami, adapted by Massoumeh Lahidji; director of photography, Luca Bigazzi; edited by Bahman Kiarostami; sets by Giancarlo Basili and Ludovica Ferrario; produced by Marin Karmitz, Nathanaël Karmitz, Charles Gillibert and Angelo Barbagallo; released by Artificial Eye (Britain) and Sundance Selects (United States). In Italian, French and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Juliette Binoche (Elle, or She), William Shimell (James Miller), Jean-Claude Carrière (the Man at the Square), Agathe Natanson (the Woman at the Square), Gianna Giachetti (the Cafe Owner), Adrian Moore (the Son), Angelo Barbagallo (the Interpreter), Andrea Laurenzi (the Guide), Filippo Troiano (the Bridegroom) and Manuela Balsimelli (the Bride).


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