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Critics' Reviews

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'Certified Copy': An Original Kiarostami Gem
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

"Pretentious people talking about pretentious things." That's how one commenter on a reasonably popular movie-themed website summed up the trailer that was posted there for this new film by the acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Readers, I cannot tell a lie: The "hero" of this film is a British writer who has just had a book published in which he discusses at length the idea of originality in art, and the arts, and the "heroine" is a Frenchwoman with whom the writer has a day's adventure in a small Italian village, an adventure that starts off with the pair discussing the issues discussed in the writer's book and their relation to what's going on around them. So if you think that the topic of originality in art is by definition a "pretentious" one, and that any discussion on it is by definition "pretentious," well, yes, "Certified Copy" is absolutely going to rub you the wrong way.

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As it happens, though, "Certified Copy" isn't really about what its characters are discussing; it's about the changes enacted by the characters as the discussion continues, the emotional twists and turns that become more than emotional twists and turns. They end up actual transformations of the "reality" of the film itself. About a third of the way through the picture, the unnamed female protagonist, played beautifully by the ever-beguiling Juliette Binoche, is sitting alone in a cafe in a tourist-laden Tuscan village. James (incarnated by the very-refined-looking William Schimmel, a British opera singer with a fantastically mellifluous speaking voice who's done almost no prior film acting), the writer she's been driving around and getting ever more argumentative with, on all those "pretentious" topics, is outside making a phone call. The older woman who appears to run the café remarks to Binoche that the handsome British gentleman looks as if he's a good husband, but wonders why he seems to speak neither Italian nor French, and why he hasn't shaved that day. Binoche's character sticks up for the fellow, and testifies to his many virtues, citing anecdotes from their marriage.

But. As far as we know -- as far as we've been told -- James is not her husband. They only just met earlier in the afternoon. It's not entirely certain why they're meeting, or how the appointment was set up, but as it's presented in the early portion of the film, that was neither here nor there. And I rather doubt that further viewings of the film and special attention paid to those portions will cause the penny to drop in the mind of the viewer determined to make "sense" of what's going on.

In a sense, "Certified Copy" can be seen as the first great science-fiction film of the year. Not that it has any aliens, or special effects, but that it creates an entirely porous situational and emotional reality that can put the viewer on as potent a "trip" as any great genre puzzler you'd care to evoke. But by the same token, this isn't a riddle film with a solution that, once sorted out, will add up to some sort of "Aha! THAT'S what it's all about!" moment. Like David Lynch's far more irrational and free-associative "Mulholland Dr.," it's an experience that's intended to keep teasing things out of you, not a Chinese box puzzle yielding a pat solution.

Which is why the surface matter of the picture -- the "pretentious people talking about pretentious things" aspect of it -- is really not terribly crucial but, at the same time, is. That's one of the crazier things about this very unusual film. Because, as it happens, the questions of authenticity the characters discuss in the film eventually apply to the film itself. What Kiarostami is "copying" here, after a fashion, stems from a strain of classic European art film from a bygone era. The quarrelsome situations the couple find themselves in as they sink deeper into the conceit (or is it a conceit, one may keep asking) of being long-married seem to allude to such hugely admired pictures such as Antonioni's "La Notte" and Rossellini's "Voyage in Italy." But the allusions soon take another turn, in a brief scene in which the couple give advice to another couple, these being French tourists. This is the occasion for one of the film's best jokes, which I won't spoil.

The germane point, though, is that the male half of the French couple is played by Jean-Claude Carriere, the great screenwriter who collaborated with Luis Buñuel on all of his films, from "Diary of a Chambermaid" in 1964 to Buñuel's last, 1977's "That Obscure Object of Desire." In "Desire," two actresses, Angela Molina and Carole Bouquet, played the same woman, Conchita. Here, Binoche and Schimmel, while never changing their bearings or appearances (except that Binoche's character does put on lipstick and earrings in a restaurant bathroom before one exchange), seem to be incarnating different characters at different times, from relative strangers to estranged husband and wife to tentative lovers to ... what, exactly?

That's the question this beautifully made film leaves us hanging with. This may infuriate some. It delighted me. Others might find the whole idea, well, pretentious. It's not. But if that's how you feel, you might not want to go through the experience.

Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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