Juliette Binoche, William Shimell, Jean-Claude Carriere, Agathe Natanson, Gianna Glachetti, Adrian Moore, Angelo Barbagallo (Written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami; IFC Films)

He’s a cool, intensely self-satisfied Brit who’s been praised—perhaps over-praised--as an expert on cultural matters. She’s a vivacious, flakily opinionated French-born antique dealer whose shop is located in the picture-perfect Tuscan village where the trendy commentator has come to give a lecture based on his latest book, one which pushes the notion that certain copies of original paintings and sculpture deserve applause for the power and inspiration they provide. They are, in fact, true works of art.

But wait a second. The antique dealer has read this man’s book, and she is definitely not buying his facile revisionist theory. She even creates a weird disturbance in the middle of his slicker-than-slick lecture, mainly by shuffling about in the auditorium and making puzzling gestures—even passing notes and signaling to people she knows, one of whom is her endearingly rebellious teenage son.  Naturally, mother and son are out of the door and about their business before the lecturer has made his final claim for copycat art.

That does not mean the visiting celebrity,  played with an amusing blend of macho vanity and vulnerability by English operatic baritone William Shimell, has seen the last of his spirited challenger, a complex role wisely entrusted to the endlessly intriguing Juliette Binoche. Within a matter of hours, the two are brought together in a somewhat mysterious fashion and are soon ardent traveling companions, apparently on the road to a fine romance, despite a series of artistic and emotional quibbles that shift, without warning, from amusing to borderline tragic.

And, as fans of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami have been persuaded on numerous cinematic occasions, appearances are seldom what they seem. When a stranger they encounter on their journey assumes she is meeting a long-married couple,  they play along with her misperception, and before long, frame by illuminating frame, we too become convinced that the currents of this poignant, mysterious, haunting tale run far deeper than we had anticipated.

In truth, we must supply our own answers to Kiarostami’s teasing riddle. Were the guarded author and mercurial art enthusiast once man and wife? If so, which conflicts among the fleeting clues offered here finally shattered their marriage? We wonder too if the scampish son of the single mother ever figured out the true identity of his father.  Most of all, we wonder if we should smile or shed a tear in response to the enigmatic jolt with which this certified miracle worker concludes his comic drama.  I was torn between the two extremes, which is just one of the reasons I am eager to see this provocative film again. --Opens 3/11/11