A Man and a Woman: 15 Years Earlier
From his adapted screenplay, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy/Copie Conforme could easily, perhaps better, be appreciated on an intimate live stage as a tour de force for two actors. That would, however, eliminate the sights and sounds of Tuscany, in effect a third, backdrop character in its piazzas, trattorias, narrow stradas, cobbles and stone structures, churches and omnipresent bells, and cypresses in road-rows.
Press notes have Juliette Binoche and screen debutant opera baritone William Shimell contradicting one another on Kiarostami’s English -- “perfect” as against a “work in progress.” What is certain is that this director’s first production outside Iran is, as usual, a slow rumination which Europeans may embrace but can only run the art-house circuit here.
Binoche’s (Best Actress at Cannes for the rôle) nameless protagonist with an unclarified past -- one thinks divorced, but abandoned, widowed or unmarried cannot be eliminated out of hand -- is still this side of the decline of her ripest womanhood. She is hungry for a man, for love, for tender emotional and physical reciprocation. She is not, nevertheless, a martyr or for that matter necessarily sympathetic. She is uncharitable about unseen sister Marie and her lazy good-natured husband, and impatient with and dismissive of prescient texting son Julien (Adrian Moore) and her maid-nanny. Up to a certain point, one might question her emotional stability and even posit a sinister outcome.
But Kiarostami is not fashioning a dangerous deranged frustrated female thriller. Nor is this a clichéd strangers meeting, coupling for one sweet night, or falling in love. As things go on, beyond Julien’s early teasing and maybe only sparked for the audience by a mature café owner’s (Gianna Giachetti) misapprehension but wise opinions, surfaces reveal depths linked to an at-first unreal past that is revealed to have shaped the present. Like stories told so often that whether they actually occurred or not becomes blurred, that past becomes in itself a reality.
British author James Miller (Shimell) is in Arezzo for a book promotion of Certified Copy, enjoying more success abroad than back home. Tall, graying, handsome with a day’s stubble -- his shaving habits will be linked to the unreal-real past -- he has been targeted by the woman, from his writing that she hasn’t liked (and maybe from an unmentioned dust-jacket photo) but which has raised questions she invites him to answer in her dark antique-and-reproductions shop.
Neither artist nor art historian, and a practical man who clutters his life with nothing, he has considered the relatively equal value of originals and copies and, in the aggressive discussion she forces, continues to the concept that the originals are themselves copies of whatever the artist painted from life. Thus Tuscan Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, a Florentine merchant’s wife “by a real man portraying a real woman of flesh and blood,” and Michelangelo’s David, the original sculpture and the outdoor reproduction. “It is so,” wrote Pirandello, “if you think so.”
Picking up on the café lady’s assumption that they are man and wife, the woman enters into the spirit with the story of their fifteen-year marriage and his frequent absences. Elaborated further in the street to include his not sharing responsibility for their difficult son, the seeming fabrication by turns baffles, intrigues and is entered into by James, perhaps at first because he envisions safe escape on his nine o’clock train.
The two bicker, make up, sulk, separate or walk together, as the fiction-or-is-it? impinges upon, indeed replaces, the “fact” that they have spent together only this sunny half-day. Nothing about their individual backgrounds is revealed -- is he divorced, separated, or just guarded about some disappointment? -- but their unified present and past arises in snatches of arguments, cajolings, reproaches. Did she fall asleep, or merely nod off driving with their sleeping son; did he not shave for their wedding day, and did he fall snoring while she primped for a romantic anniversary?
The couple separate and come together, ever closer to the B&B pensione of a wedding night those years before. Each has changed during that time and during this day, but his quizzical look in the third-floor Room 9 mirror -- his decision is left to inference -- reflects her pathetic putting on makeup and earrings before the mirror of a restaurant with a surly waiter, bad wine and the wedding party.
Initially puzzling, this toying with, mixing of, fact and fiction takes getting used to. The Cannes and New York Film Festival selection is for the patient few who can discuss it for long afterwards.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)