Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami, 106 mins, (12A)

Against a Tuscan backdrop and performed in three languages by an opera singer and Juliette Binoche, this romance has edge
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The Independent Culture

Set in Tuscany, Certified Copy is a comedy of manners starring a French actress and an English opera singer, with dialogue in English, French and Italian.

It isn't what you expect from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, but then, he has a habit of defying expectations: his last film, Shirin, was entirely composed of close-ups of women's faces.

In Certified Copy, Kiarostami – working outside Iran for the first time – seems to have opted for something rather safer: a polished Italian art film. But Certified Copy isn't quite what it seems – although I won't overwork that turn of phrase, given that the film makes slightly heavy weather of the importance of not trusting appearances. The film is ostensibly about fakery and authenticity – the subjects of a book by an English writer, James Miller (William Shimell), who argues that copies are every bit as good as the "real thing". Miller is in Tuscany to launch the Italian edition of his book – in other words, itself a copy of his English original.

The next day, Miller ends up joining an unnamed woman (Juliette Binoche), apparently a stranger, on a trip to a small town called Lucignano. En route, the pair awkwardly exchange vague theoretical chat about the question of authenticity – Jasper Johns, Coke bottles and so forth, all with a distinct whiff of Year 1 Aesthetics about it. Of more interest is the woman's strange flirtatious twitchiness, the way that she seems forever tremulously hovering on the edge of intense upset – emotional nuances apparently lost on the laconic Englishman.

Then a café owner assumes that the pair are married, and the woman decides to play along with the mistake. Suddenly, there's a strange shift: the pair start talking as if they really were a couple going through the throes of a difficult marriage. Seeing the happy newly-weds who throng Lucignano, Miller grumbles cantankerously about the horrors that wedlock has in store for all these unknowing fools.

So, just who are this oddly matched duo? New acquaintances acting out a charade, a bizarre and perverse courtship dance? A gauche intellectual and a disturbed, manipulative fan? A jaded couple involved in elaborate role play, pretending to be a couple involved in elaborate role play? All these possibilities, and others besides, are equally valid – and with, for the most part, a very light touch, Kiarostami gets us hooked by a situation that could easily seem rarefied and academic.

There is, to be honest, a certain creakiness to the film, especially in the dialogue (and especially in the English) translated from Kiarostami's original script. But language is hardly likely to be friction-free in a film about characters struggling to connect in tongues not their own. More than the question of copies and originals, the film's real subject is the eternal problem of communication, especially between the sexes: in other words, men are from Mars, women are from Venus.

The argument may well, in the end, boil down to something as banal as that, but there's a subtlety in the execution that is pure Kiarostami. There isn't an ounce of excess weight in the direction: the film is shot by Luca Bigazzi with an economic precision that sets a very particular minimalist tone. The effect is to make this slender vignette into something like a Henry James short story written according to Kafka dream logic.

As for as the acting, Binoche is magnificent, but can be roundly infuriating – always mercurially shifting the emotional gears, at times in an overtly actressy way. But then this is a performance about performance: her nameless woman comes across as someone who's as much a set of shifting parameters as she is a person. As for Shimell, an operatic baritone taking on his first straight acting role, he registers very convincingly as a dry, rather narcissistic highbrow who's out of his depth and, by the end, amusingly out of patience. If there's no obvious chemistry between the characters, that too makes sense within the terms of the film: if even these two aren't sure they're a couple, why should we expect them to seem a natural fit? The film may well infuriate you, but anyone who's ever been in a long relationship – or watched in horror as other people acted out the complications of theirs – will recognise some of the face-offs that are dramatised here.

Admittedly, Certified Copy comes across a little too neatly like a handsome, high- to middle-brow bourgeois European art film. Then again, it looks and feels entirely like Kiarostami. It's about reality and fakery, a favourite theme; it features his trademark in-car conversations; and the Tuscan hillsides uncannily resemble the Iranian ones seen in his great landscape film The Wind Will Carry Us. In fact, I'm not sure what this resembles more: an Italian film-maker doing a Kiarostami, or Kiarostami's forgery of an Italian film-maker's copy of a Kiarostami. Either way, it's certifiably fascinating.

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