Certified Copy (12A)

Juliette Binoche shines in a movie about authenticity in art.

Certified Copy (12A)
dir: Abbas Kiarostami

The Iranian directors who found international recognition in the late 1980s and 1990s brought with them a striking innovation. Films such as Abbas Kiarostami's And Life Goes On and Close-Up, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence and Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple cast non-professionals as themselves in reconstructions of their lives, inviting our speculation about where documentary ended and fiction began. Even those who hoped never to find a definitive answer to that question could relish the sensation of the old certainties of film melting away on the screen.

Although Kiarostami's Certified Copy is not a docudrama, it does raise concerns about fabrication and fraudulence that have been pertinent to Iranian cinema. And it contains one kink, one melting moment of its own, after which nothing else in the film can be regarded in the same light. About the nature of that meltdown I pledge to say nothing, the better to keep it intact.

The film pairs a first-timer, the English operatic baritone William Shimell, with Juliette Binoche in a kind of pro-am acting tournament. Some of the movie's fascination arises from the clash between the newcomer's awkwardness and his co-star's ability to switch from goofy to brittle to rapacious with the breeziness of a Williams sister reaching for the umpteenth variation on a devastating backhand. Silver-haired Shimell has an easy-listening, MOR sheen, as well as a hesitant handsomeness that suggests Trevor Eve - or how Eve might look if he hadn't spent an eternity scowling over autopsies in Waking the Dead.

Shimell plays James Miller, a writer who has come to Tuscany to lecture on authenticity in art and the value of the reproduction. In the audience is a Frenchwoman (Binoche), nameless in that clichéd art-house way, and her young son. Over lunch, the child rolls his eyes: "You want to fall in love with James Miller," he teases his mother. But once she meets the writer and accompanies him to view a forged painting, her intentions become more opaque.

They discuss Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, and how context can alter an object by throwing the focus on to the observer. The woman tells James about her sister, who shares his belief that a copy can match or even exceed the worth of an original, but then seems irritated by his response and by the dedication he scribbles in her sister's book. The easy harmony between two intelligent and reasonable strangers keeps threatening to break down. For the viewer, it's as though there is a struggle going on between two projectionists, one of whom wants to show us Before Sunrise while the other is fighting for Le mépris.

What happens next isn't exactly a shock revelation - Binoche doesn't get a Crying Game moment or anything like that - and nor is it an actual rupture in the tradition of Carnal Knowledge or Lost Highway. It more strongly resembles that electrifying point at the beginning of Vanya on 42nd Street when the actors are milling around in their civvies, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze, and you suddenly realise that they have slipped without fanfare into their run-through of Chekhov.

Some time after the midpoint switcheroo in Certified Copy, the main characters meet two French tourists in a square in Lucignano. The male tourist, a benign bear with bristly silver stubble, is played by Jean-Claude Carrière, the legendary screenwriter who collaborated with Buñuel on that director's late-period masterpieces (from The Diary of a Chambermaid onwards) and has become something of a talisman of art-house cinema, bringing his pared-down mischief-making to films including The Tin Drum, Birth and The White Ribbon.

Carrière's presence here, in a picture that is as short on explanation as the work with which he made his name, is symbolically correct. But it also reminds you that intellectual film-making doesn't need to be as bloodless and theoretical as Certified Copy, in which ideas are aired, exchanged but never quite animated. Buñuel and Carrière proved more than anyone that the cinema of ideas could be a riot. So Kiarostami's film isn't exactly a forgery. More like a sombre coat of paint that's in danger of being upstaged by the psychedelic patterns underneath.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial