More compelling as an intellectual exercise than an emotional one, “Certified Copy” finds deep-thinking writer-director Abbas Kiarostami asserting there’s nothing new under the Tuscan sun, particularly not his own conventional romantic drama set in rural Italy. Frontloaded with philosophical dialogue on the nature of copies and originals in art and life, this deliberately derivative film about the brief encounter, before sunset, between a British author (William Shimell) and a French antique shop owner (Juliette Binoche) does have its charms. But, making his first feature outside Iran, Kiarostami appears condescending to the bourgeois melodrama, and commercial prospects could suffer for it.
Not unlike Andy Warhol, who comes up in conversation between the two characters, Kiarostami is toying with tenets of cultural reception by placing a rather ordinary object within a rarefied space — that is, the international art-film market. The director’s other game in “Certified Copy”: Can he create something genuine out of familiar, even cliched material? That Kiarostami’s riff on the walking-and-talking romance never quite comes into its own may well be by intent. Following as it does the filmmaker’s decade of heartfelt experimental work (e.g., “Shirin”), “Copy” seems calculated to prove that narrative cinema has nothing much more original to say.
A la Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset,” pic opens with an English-speaking writer presenting his latest tome to a European audience, including a highly interested woman who arranges to spend some private time with the author. James Miller (Shimell, an opera singer and first-time actor), whose book contained the working title “Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy,” has a train to catch in southern Tuscany soon. But he comes to meet the woman (Binoche) — unnamed throughout the film, but known in press materials as “She” — at her cellar shop, filled only with reproductions of original sculptures.
As in Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love” (another original), these two lonely strangers begin to pretend they’re in a relationship, until such time that playing has made it real. After a long driving scene that recalls Kiarostami’s “Ten” and “Taste of Cherry,” She and James reach a cafe, whose owner mistakes them for a long-married couple, and they go along to varying degrees — She with enthusiasm, he with a reluctance that turns increasingly bitter (or maybe he just learns to play the role).
“Certified Copy” is no love story, exactly. Among the pic’s more effective jokes is that its couple affects married life so authentically that what they do more than anything is bicker. On one level, the two enact stereotyped versions of their genders: He is cold and intellectual, while She is romantic and impassioned. On another level, surrounded by Italian cultural relics of the distant past, the “married” couple seem to be channeling Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy” — which turns out to be the primary model for Kiarostami’s certified copy.
As actors playing people acting like other actors, Binoche and Shimell perform capably under the circumstances, but one suspects Kiarostami has directed them not to make the characters likable, and perhaps even not to emote real feeling. By default, the film’s standout roles are played by southern Tuscany’s piazzas, trattorias and museums, which could only look more lovely in, uh, their original settings. Shots taken from the windshield of She’s car, surveying country roads lined with cypress trees, are gorgeous — and near-perfect color copies of identical images in the certifiably great “Voyage to Italy.”