June 30 (Bloomberg) -- Juliette Binoche moans about men in three languages -- English, French and Italian -- for the screen part that won her the best-actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
“Copie Conforme” (“Certified Copy”) has an Iranian writer-director (Abbas Kiarostami), a British co-star (baritone William Shimell), a French co-producer (Marin Karmitz) and an Italian setting (Tuscany). Usually, that kind of cross-cultural cooperation spells disaster: Acting and dialogue fall prey to language barriers.
“Certified Copy” largely avoids the trap. It’s an often funny meditation on the frustrations of male-female relationships -- a kind of “Men are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” only less prosaic, and more show-don’t-tell.
Binoche, 46, does most of the showing. Her face, often the camera’s single focus, is the canvas on which Kiarostami projects his story. What little plot there is emerges through her monologues and displays of emotion.
Binoche plays a Tuscany-based gallery owner and single mother who spots a suave, middle-aged U.K. author named James Miller (played by the first-time actor Shimell). James is giving a talk defending his highbrow book’s premise: that copies, in art, serve a worthy purpose.
Binoche shows up late, and takes a front-row seat. She’s followed by her son, a bushy-haired pre-adolescent who watches Mom from the corner. Binoche gives a handwritten note to the lecture’s organizer, and heads off to a cafe with the boy, who teases her about ordering six copies of the book.
“You like James, and you’ve decided to fall in love with him,” he says knowingly.
By the next scene, James enters her gallery, a cool medieval space filled with antique sculptures. The two discuss the relative merits of originals and copies as they drive to the town of Lucignano, where couples marry for good luck.
James can’t help but sneer at the smiling brides and grooms everywhere. As they order coffee and he disappears to the gents, the nosy cafe owner, a world-weary Italian woman, quizzes Binoche about the man she assumes is her spouse.
“She mistook you for my husband, and I didn’t correct her,” Binoche tells James when he returns. “Obviously, we make a good couple: What do you think?” comes his flirty reply.
At that point, reality and fiction become blurred. How? You’ll have to see the movie to find out.
Visually, this is 70-year-old Kiarostami’s most polished work. Previous films -- most of them every bit as interesting - - were more spontaneous, low-budget affairs shot in Iran. Here, you sense a heftier production team. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, in particular, helps Kiarostami (himself a photographer) deliver inebriating views of Tuscany.
Kiarostami shows prowess at portraying male-female couples. As he confessed to reporters in Cannes, borrowing verse from the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez, relationships are the one area where experience is of no use. The same misunderstandings recur time and again.
His movie shows exactly that: a man and woman repeatedly hitting the wall of mutual incomprehension. In one striking scene, Binoche pulls out red lipstick and dangling earrings to doll herself up in a trattoria restroom, using the camera lens as a mirror. When she reappears before her male companion, his reaction is not what she expected.
The movie does have flashes of awkwardness. When Binoche stumbles on a word in French or Italian (languages Kiarostami doesn’t speak) or inadvertently looks into the camera for a nanosecond, the director keeps it all in, delivering what appears to be one long, uninterrupted take.
It’s all part of his neo-realistic, naturalistic approach to filmmaking, as seen in titles such as “Close-Up” (1990), where characters re-enacted events that happened to them off screen. Yet “Certified Copy” is a work of fiction played by actors. So that naturalistic, light-edit approach makes the work of a talented director seem intermittently amateurish.
Otherwise, Kiarostami’s first full-length stab at feature filmmaking outside Iran is a successful baptism by fire. Regardless of where he shoots, Kiarostami is one to watch. So is the photogenic Binoche, but you probably knew that already.
(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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