Subtle Undercurrents Run Through Arthouse Dramas 'Domain' and 'Certified Copy'

It's no wonder that teenage Pierre (Isaie Sultan) looks up to his aunt, Nadia (Beatrice Dalle). She's a striking middle-aged mathematician with a keen mind, a purposeful stride, a quiver full of pointed opinions, and zero self-pity. It's heady stuff, indeed, for sweet, quiet 17-year-old Pierre to hang out with Nadia and her friends as they pass Champagne and intellectual banter. He starts ditching his own-age school pals to walk through the park with her, smoking and talking. As Austrian/French writer/director Patric Chiha's exquisitely understated 2009 film Domain (Strand Releasing DVD) unfolds, however, their relationship shifts.

During one walk, they stop at a bridge railing and peer over into a roiling river (Chiha's camera often returns to the image as well). Nadia being Nadia, she knows exactly how many meters the bottom lies beneath the ever-changing rills, and that's an adroit metaphor for the gap between surface and reality that bears Domain's subtle drama forward. Pierre seems to gain confidence from Nadia's strength and comfort with who she is as he feels out his own way in the world as a young gay man. But those glasses of white wine Nadia tosses back keep on coming, one after another; first Pierre is helping her get dressed for clubbing, next he's putting her to bed and tending a gash on her forehead earned when she falls down drunk. The warnings his mother and others offer start to make more sense. As he matures and she falls further into alcoholism, they come to a point where she is no longer the stronger, more together person. Chiha's debut feature has its facile moments (e.g., Pierre's coming into his queer own culminates in meeting a cute boyfriend on the train, easy peasy, problem solved), but Dalle's forceful yet contained performance runs like a third rail through the director's patient storytelling, unobstrusively energizing everything around it. And Domain culminates in one of the most shocking, fitting, and haunting endings you'll see on a screen this year.

Questions of who is whom and what does each mean to the other also shape and galvanize Abbas Kiarostami's 2010 Certified Copy (Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray). Silver-foxy British intellectual James (William Shimell) has written a book (with which the film shares its title) arguing, in essence, that access to great works of art is so rare that we should embrace and enjoy copies, which are often just as potent if you allow them to be. He stops by a small Tuscan town for a reading, which is attended by a local never-named French-born antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche). They meet up after and chat with that mix of flirting and mild irritation that at this point serves as a Pavlovian signal for movie romance. They take a drive to see some sights, talking about art and reality and the challenge of raising her young son and more, Kiarostami's cameras staying well out of their way, and of yours. And then in a café, the waitress mistakes them for a married couple. Seemingly as a lark at first, they begin to talk and behave as if they have been married for 15 years, complete with a marriage-span's worth of shared jokes as well as, eventually, bitter recrimination and wistful longing.

You might, at first, conditioned by years of moviegoing experience, attempt to track and catalog clues in your head: Is there anything either of them said at first that hinted at a prior relationship? Did he say he did, in fact, know how to speak French? You can occupy yourself that way, if you must, though you'd be missing the point, and the best of the experience. Kiarostami uses the conceit of talking about authenticity and facsimile in art to explore the emotional breadth of romantic relationships, as well as their depiction in onscreen art, in an unfettered way.

But what makes Certified Copy work—indeed, makes it sing—are the performances. Binoche doesn't work nearly enough in American films, though it's difficult to conjure up too many recent domestic titles worthy of this exquisite emotional subtlety. Her middle-aged mom is a familiar mix of worldly self-possession and private doubt and vulnerability. As the banter escalates into spatting, she gives as good as she gets, though it seems likely that she is as surprised as you are by the sudden appearance of an elegant rivulet of tears streaming down one refined cheekbone. Shimell, an opera singer by trade, makes his film-acting debut here, and while he's largely meant to play Ginger Rogers to Binoche's Fred Astaire, he comes up with a convincing, well-shaded palette of meet-cute charm, manly diffidence, and mid-life weariness. Most important, their relation to each other in any given moment, whether across a car's front seat, across a café table, or eventually across a coverlet, feels absolutely true, no matter how many layers of artifice it emerges from in the final tally. There's plenty to analyze here, and critics, scholars, and fans will probably be doing so for decades to come, but that's not why I wanted to watch it again immediately.

Criterion also recently released Spike Jonze's 1999 Being John Malkovich in fine new DVD and Blu-ray editions, and, oddly enough, what stands out most about the film now amid all of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's meta shenanigans is a female character who knows exactly who she is at all times: Catherine Keener's Maxine. As the sleek corporate vixen who lures John Cusack's hapless-schlub puppeteer into a surreal business venture selling tickets to the inside of actor John Malkovich's head, she is effortlessly herself, hilariously blunt, unapologetically sexual, and she gets the girl in the end. What's not to love?