One of the ironies of the use of special effects in movies is their literal-mindedness: That is, by pouring millions of dollars into computer-generated imagery, film producers try to bludgeon us into thinking we're seeing something new and magical, when what we're actually enduring is often nothing more than very expensive technology in the service of a pedestrian story. (That's you, Avatar!)
But creative filmmakers, working with far fewer resources, have since the dawn of the medium found ways to create magical, destabilizing effects on the audience, without recourse to extraordinary special effects. In David Lynch's masterpiece Mulholland Dr., there's a moment that never fails to give me a chill as the bottom falls out of our expectations of the story. It's when the two lead women, played by Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring, return from a night out at a strange cabaret. They enter a bedroom together, and while Harring turns her back to the camera to open a closet door, Watts steps out of the frame to, we assume, another, unseen part of the room. But when Harring turns around, the expression on her face tells us that she's suddenly in an empty room, and her companion, whom we'd just seen with our own eyes, has disappeared. Calling out for Watts, Harring's words inexplicably come out in Spanish: "Donde está?"
Without the audience necessarily realizing it, the relationship shift is extraordinarily unsettling. And Lynch achieved it by simply changing the rules of the story in mid-shot.
In Certified Copy, the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami also changes (or belatedly reveals) his rules, but he does it more gradually, over the course of a single long sequence rather than a single shot. The story is set in a historic Tuscan village called Arezzo, which is famed for its ties to Etruscan and Roman antiquity, as well as the Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance. The film opens at a meeting of a local arts group that has invited an English scholar named James Miller to speak. James has recently published a book called Certified Copy, which considers the issue of authenticity, and whether a well-executed copy can serve the same end as the original. (An example given in the film is the famous replica of Michelangelo's statue of David, which stands outdoors in Florence. It's nearly as impressive as the original, and it has certainly confused many tourists.) The business of Kiarostami's film is to develop a narrative that becomes a human illustration of this premise.
When we meet this author (played by English opera singer William Shimell, who has the effortless charm of an older Clooney or Irons) he's inexplicably late for his talk, despite the fact that he's staying in an apartment in the same building. Another latecomer to the talk is an unnamed woman, who takes a seat in the front row as James is speaking and is quickly distracted by her preadolescent son, who is hungry and bored. They're forced to leave the talk early, but not before she leaves her contact information with the event's organizer. All in all, an elegantly clumsy opening to the film.
The woman is unnamed, but we'll call her Juliette because she's played by Juliette Binoche, who once again places her Gallic beauty and class—as well as her reputation—at the service of a non-French art filmmaker. Here, she's a French expat in Arezzo, where she runs a small art gallery. It seems that she has volunteered to accompany the visiting author—serving as his driver—during the rest of his stay in Arezzo. He arrives in her shop, which he regards with lofty indifference, and demands to go out on the town. The day the two spend together consumes the rest of the film. They bicker politely—he's vain and prickly, while she seems to be laboring under the strain of trying to be taken seriously while also raising a son alone.
But then there's a shift in the story that takes us off our feet: The two of them are no longer strangers, but a married couple at their 15th wedding anniversary. Nothing literally "magical" happens—we're still in the real world—but, prompted by a matronly Italian coffee shop proprietor who mistakes them for a married couple, the two of them adopt the game. Without missing a beat or changing personalities, James and Juliette transform from wary strangers to bickering spouses. Viewers will be divided on whether they're strangers pretending to be married, or an estranged couple pretending to be strangers at the beginning. Either could work in this film, which becomes an illustration of James' thesis. To our eyes, the imitation of a marriage is just as convincing as the real thing—we can't readily tell the difference. Our emotional response to their playacting is the same—there is a wrenching sequence, for example, in which Juliette recounts her failure to seduce James on the occasion of their anniversary night—and we forget that we're not sure if what we're seeing is "real" or role-playing. There is a good bit of humor here, much of it at the expense of male vanity; Binoche, meanwhile, toggles between French, English and Italian in a turn that won the best actress award at last year's Cannes Film Festival.
In his notes to this cerebral, elegant, wry and ultimately enchanting film, Kiarostami expressed a desire to satirize the notion of middle-aged romance in Italy—a well-worn story, to be sure, but I found myself thinking less of other such films (like David Lean's Summertime, with Katharine Hepburn) than of two films by Richard Linklater: Before Sunrise and, especially, Before Sunset. (The latter also begins in a bookstore with its male author making an appearance, before it develops into a very similar perambulatory tale.)
This isn't the first time Kiarostami has skirted the boundaries of reality and illusion, fiction and documentary, in his films. His 1990 film, Close-Up, is even more audacious in its mingling of perspectives; viewers curious about Kiarostami's work should seek out this film, which received a Criterion DVD release last year.
Finally, any review of a work by a major Iranian filmmaker should include mention of an ongoing human-rights atrocity: Last December, Jafar Panahi, a younger compatriot of Kiarostami who has actually been more prolific in the last decade, with such marvels as The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside (all of which received theatrical releases in the Triangle) was convicted of disloyalty and sentenced to six years in prison and was banned from making films for 20 years. The fact that Iran has chosen to impede or persecute two men (Kiarostami's work is now only shown abroad) who have done so much to humanize the people of Iran tells us something about the regime's bankruptcy. With any luck, both men will live to resume work in a freer country.