“Copie Conforme” is intimate without being intrusive, blending insight and cynicism to portray the dynamics of a marriage that never was.
This could be the gentlest, most patient and sympathetic of all Abbas Kiarostami’s works — and in a way, the movie (released as “Tosukaana no Gansaku” in Japan, and “Certified Copy” in the United States) echoes the sentiments of 1987′s “Where is the Friend’s Home?,” which put Kiarostami’s name on the map and alerted the world to the emergence of Iranian films.
It echoes that film, yes, but in no way is “Copie Conforme” a replica of Kiarostami’s early works. At 70 years old, the auteur displays a surprising flexibility and scope for style. And running like an undercurrent throughout the film is the length, breadth and richness of his long, private journey.
The leads are played by the ever lovely Juliette Binoche and British baritone opera singer William Shimell — each radiating in their own way the sheen of old, polished silver. Binoche plays Elle, a single mother who runs an antique store near Paris and goes to Tuscany to hear a lecture by author and critic James Miller (Shimell).
The opening segments of the story are as compelling as James’ lecture, in which he argues that copies of art are just as valuable as the original and that everything on the face of the Earth is a “copy” of something else. The “Mona Lisa”? A mere copy of the woman who posed for the portrait. The people in this room? Comprised of replicated DNA patterns.
As far as lectures go, James’ delivery is masterful without being pushy (Tom Hanks’ character in “Angels & Demons” could have picked up a few pointers), and he fairly oozes understated charisma. Elle is drawn enough to engage him in a lively argument, and then to suggest a drive through Tuscany for further conversation. They’ll return in time for James to catch the 9 p.m. train.
At first, their dialogue is easy and disinterested, touching upon such things as the nature of happiness and the role of art in life. The two aren’t exactly trying to impress each other, but they’re a little eager to know that they’re on the same page intellectually. Grownups are like that.
So far, so “Before Sunset.” But the mood shifts dramatically when, in a village cafe where the pair stop for coffee, they’re mistaken for a married couple. Elle seems quietly thrilled, but James remains just a tiny bit aloof. Still, he’s willing to play along. They cuddle a little, laugh at each other’s jokes, and when the cafe owner (Gianna Giachetti) whispers to Elle that it’s good when men are wrapped in their jobs (“They don’t have time for mistresses!”), Elle nods in solemn agreement, and serenely concocts a tale of how they’ve been married for 15 years.
James, on the other hand, is definitely prickly, commenting on the fragility of relationships in general and the marriage bond in particular. He later observes a couple of newlyweds who are bursting with happiness, and comments: “They’re just setting themselves up for a rude awakening and bitter disappointment.”
Kiarostami keeps the frames tight and simple, focusing mostly on Elle’s facial expressions. While James has a manicured, almost glacial presence, Elle comes off like a big, sloppy puppy — unsure as to whether she’s loved, but determined to get some anyway. She also has a marked stammer and a hearing problem, which enhance her innate vulnerability and charm.
In her late 40s, Binoche has an unmatched softness and femininity that rises from her milk-and-peaches exterior. But as Elle, she also emanates a fatigue that suggests her womanliness hasn’t always brought her joy. When Elle dons a pair of large earrings and a shimmering dress with a low, low neckline for a restaurant dinner, James never notices or comments on her beauty. The anger on her face is simply too painful to witness.
Noticing her mood, James also turns himself off and the meal becomes a dismal affair. In the course of just one day, the “couple” have gone from two sexy, brainy adults enjoying each other’s words and company to an old married couple festering in boredom and resentment. Not that Kiarostami would do anything so banal as end the story on this note.
The conceit (fully justified) of “Copie Conforme” is that even the darkest and most bitter of emotions can be replicated and tossed out for display across a candlelit table. And if Elle’s misery is a knockoff version of her “real” feelings, “Copie Conforme” tells us that this doesn’t make her, or the story, any less intriguing.