A true original: Binoche is simply stunning in romantic comedy ‘Certified Copy’
It’s true that Elizabeth Taylor took with her an entire era of movie stardom when she died last week. But she didn’t take everything. For instance, we still have Juliette Binoche, who, unlike Taylor, is in command of both a solar and a lunar radiance. In other words, dogs howl as often as men. Her new picture, “Certified Copy,’’ is almost completely a daylight affair. It’s set in the Tuscan region of Arezzo where, playing a French antiques dealer whom the movie labels only as “She,’’ Binoche is required to roam the winding streets and fountain-centric plazas. The walk appears to be a direct extension of the character’s state of mind: She’s emotionally itinerant, too.
Her partner for the trip is an English author named James Miller, who’s played by William Shimmel, an opera singer. He’s a weathered statue of a man and a touch pompous about everything from his own ideas to her frustration with her teenage son (Adrian Moore). But she’s drawn to him, anyway. There she is in the first row of his lecture. She leaves her phone number for James, and when her son exposes her pretext (she says she wants a few books signed), she hits the roof. Binoche’s entire performance, in fact, occurs near the rafters. It’s a mercurial feat of merely being that combines skill with all the intangibles of a glorious movie persona.
Binoche acts with her hands, her chest, her rolling eyes, her pores, her laugh (that deep, rich chortle is up there with Goldie Hawn’s honk and Julia Roberts’s Ferrari-caliber bray as weirdly soothing music). There’s a divinely comical lightness to Binoche here: Even in states of conniption and complaint, she’s floating, albeit manically. In her opening minutes with James, she goes on a bit nervously about the pieces in her shop and her sister and child. In a nanosecond, she goes from pointedly correcting him in a disagreement to sweetly inviting him into a museum to show him something special.
As testament both to her appeal and his patience, James does not run off, look at his watch, or fake a phone call to escape. Neither will you. “Certified Copy’’ was written and directed by the frequently superb Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian whose previous films — among them, “The Report,’’ “Life and Nothing More. . .,’’ “Close-Up,’’ “Taste of Cherry,’’ “The Wind Will Carry Us’’ — testified to unexpected conflations: darkness and light, community and isolation, life and death, mirth and misery, reality and fabrication. He gave us natural disasters and death marches. He did this within the realm of politics but outside the language of narrative. Yet he was always telling a story. You need only commit the attention to see it through.
Kiarostami became an international hero by putting a country on the world’s movie map and making his style of dour minimalism chic enough to seem — in the globe’s art houses, anyway — normal. Superficially, “Certified Copy’’ is a radical departure. It’s not conventionally narrative. It is, at least, comparably navigable. It’s cheering. It puts a great movie star to thrilling use. This departure has inspired Kiarostami purists to note its apolitical ideas and snipe that it’s Kiarostami for people who don’t like Kiarostami. The Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien recently got a different but equally magical performance out of Binoche in “Flight of the Red Balloon,’’ and no one complained.
On some level, Kiarostami, who is 70, is guilty of having a pleasurable moment, of doing a tony version of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise’’ or David Lean’s happy trifle “Summertime,’’ in which Katharine Hepburn falls in love with Rossano Brazzi on vacation in Venice. But because the movie is light does not mean it’s frivolous. James has been invited to Italy on behalf of an essay he’s written about the elusive nature of authenticity in art and whether such authenticity matters. He and She spend their walk discussing his idea of perfect copies — how it applies to both relics and children.
This strikes me as essentially Kiarostami. In fact, when She and He pop into the cafe of a sturdy Italian woman (Gianna Giachetti) and the woman assumes they are married, She doesn’t deny it, and, eventually, neither does He. From here, “Certified Copy’’ passes through the looking glass into a state of heightened ambiguity. Are these two for real with their arguments and reminiscences and intimacy? Is this their first date or 15th? In this sense, the movie becomes a version of the thing it’s about: We can’t vouch for an original relationship but whatever they are up to now feels like authentic reproduction.
The key to the mystery is Binoche, who’s full of little surprises. She throws away her lines and rolls her eyes and stares both at Shimmel and, courtesy of Kiarostami’s museum-worthy framing, at us. She makes being on camera seem like the easiest thing in the world, which is what great stars can do — that and make you feel as alive as they appear to be. You can see her effect on Kiarostami’s filmmaking: She brings out something new in him, too.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review gave an incomplete title for Hou Hsaio-hsien's movie. It's "Flight of the Red Balloon."