About a third of the way through this new film by Iranian director Abba Kiarostami, the character played by Juliette Binoche is sitting in a cafe in a tourist-laden Tuscan village when her male companion has to take a phone call, and he goes outside to talk on his cell. The proprieter of the cafe, one of the handful of businesses open on this late Sunday afternoon, 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 or French, and why he hasn't shaved that day. Binoche's character, who's never given a name of her own in the film, defends the fellow, who's called James, on both the linguistic and grooming fronts, and testifies to his other virtues, with anecdotes from the marriage.
Only problem is, James is not her husband. At least we don't think he's her husband, at least not yet. As far as the viewer is concerned, James and the woman only really met a little while ago, in the dark basement of the antique store that this single mother of a very difficult young boy runs. James is a cultural critic whose most recent book, about the importance or lack thereof of originality in art, gives this film its title, and which Binoche's character has apparently purchased at least a half-dozen titles of. James—beautifully played by the devastatingly handsome William Schimmel, a British opera singer with a fantastically mellifluous speaking voice who's done almost no prior film acting—has shown up on this Sunday at the mysterious request of the Binoche character, and we are under the impression that he's acquiescing to the desire of a quasi-fan who has some expertise in an area his book touches on. In any case, he sees this date as a casual one; he's happy enough to spend some time with this strange woman (and as she's incarnated by the beguiling Binoche, we can hardly blame him), as long as she can get him to the train station to get a 9 p.m. ride out of the country.
When I say "strange" woman, I mean really strange. No sooner are the she and James in her car, off to see a village she's particularly keen on showing him, than she begins behaving in a thoroughly vexatious fashion, aggressively going after James on intellectual points, regaling him with peculiar stories about her family members, jumping down his throat when he reacts to some story about her obstreperous son (who is almost as obnoxious, in fact, as that damn kid in the beginning of Kiarostami's Ten) with a more intellectually vigorous variant of a "kids will be kids" defense, and so on. So when the woman, unbenownst to James, starts talking to this cafe owner as if James is in fact her husband, the viewer would not be blamed for beginning to wonder if we're wandering into crazy-broad-thriller territory, Fatal Attraction art cinema style, or some such thing. Which would be weird territory for Kiarostami.
As it happens, Certified Copy does see the director staking out some new territory, but not of that kind—thankfully. There's a bit when the characters are driving to the village and talking about the cypresses that line the sides of the roads, and talking about how they're all different and yet all the same—that is, they're all cypresses, and this reminded me of a critic's remark about the performances and recordings of the avant-garde musical conglomeration AMM, how they were as alike and as different as trees, and made me think how Certified Copy felt nothing like any prior Kiarostami film I had seen and yet entirely like a Kiarostami film. I remind myself that this is a film by the director of the is-it-fact-or-fiction classic Close Up and I say "Oh, really?" and "Of course" simultaneously.
"This movie is nuts" is another thing that occurred to me as I was watching, because at a certain point I decided to drop the notion that what was happening between the characters had some rational explanation. I've read some review of the film that state that the whole husband-and-wife exchanges between the characters, complete with recollections and visits to hotel rooms and such, are part of a game that the two have tacitly decided to play. I don't think that's what's happening, at all. I think the ostensible objective reality of the movie is constantly shifting and mutating, in accordance with the theme of originality and authenticity that James' work is all about. The village where the woman and James enact their ever-changing romantic drama is not just a popular tourist spot, it's big for weddings, too, and there's a splendid recurring visual joke in which the various young brides look like clones of each other. There are little bits that appear to be allusions to Antonioni's La Notte and Rossellini's Voyage in Italy, but a big clue to what the film's really about, or what I think it's really about, comes when Binoche's character approaches a couple of French tourists to consult on an aesthetic question (in one of her many attempts to show up James' theories). This is the occasion for one of the film's best jokes, which I won't spoil. The germane point is that the male of the couple is played (with terrific bearish drollery and sympathy) 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? The film never answers the question, which means, I suppose, it's not really a puzzle film. But between its intellectual matter and its emotional content and its weird, unsettled senses of both actuality and identity, the film strikes me less as in the tradition of the Rossellini and Antonioni pictures and more like a more anguished cross between Ruiz's The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting and Buñuel's Obscure Object. Surrealist with a capital "s," to be sure, and a real curveball from Kiarostami. Seeing this and Uncle Boonmee the same afternoon put me, and a bunch of my fellow NYFF press screening attendees, into a cinephilic swoon we'll be luxuriating in for some time.