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Are they or aren’t they? That’s the question that will dog you throughout Certified Copy, writer-director Abbas Kiarostami‘s first feature filmed outside of Iran. Juliette Binoche took Cannes’ best actress price for her role as Elle, a Tuscany gallery owner who’s a little too enthusiastic about a reading by James Miller (opera singer William Shimell, making his film debut), a handsome author who wrote a book about authenticity in art.
She offers to take him on a tour of the countryside, an excursion that starts out prickly (he’s unimpressed by her gallery) and grows even pricklier as the day wears on, apparently draining both James’ energy and patience. They speak—-and argue—-about art, family, and marriage, and at one point are mistaken for a married couple. Then they carry on as if it were true: These alleged strangers have been married for 15 years, they say, yet Elle feels more distant from her husband than ever. But, echoing the theme of James’ book, which half of their interaction is pretense and which is real?
It’s impossible to tell, although the ease with which they disagree with each other and get pouty suggests the comfortableness of long-time lovers. (At one point, Kiarostami has them literally speaking different languages, as each understands English, Italian, and French.) What isn’t difficult to discern is that James is an arrogant ass while Elle is more pitiable. She never hesitates to show her displeasure with him yet perpetually tries to win his approval nonetheless, as when she pretties herself in a restaurant restroom only to return to their table to find her companion nearly apoplectic over a corked bottle of wine.
Kiarostami has a fantastic ear and eye for the little irritations that can disproportionately grate between two people who know each other well, and the issues he brings up about relationships are provocative. But the question of whether Certified Copy makes for satisfying viewing is a different beast: Think of an always-bickering couple you may know. Do you want to spend the better part of two hours in their company?