Enigmatic, engrossing and finally enchanting, the first film shot outside his native Iran by the acclaimed Kiarostami is a Rubik's cube of a movie, constantly changing appearance according to the angle of view.

Its entire concern is the relationship between the two main characters - only a handful of other characters speak and seldom for more than a few lines - but we are never quite sure what the nature of that relationship is: is it real, or - as the title suggests - a perfect facsimile? Is it beginning, ending or just carrying on? Is it make-believe - and if so, is that for fun or for some deeper, sadder purpose?

A second viewing offered a couple of clues that separately suggested a particular interpretation, but taken together deepened the mystery further. No matter: ambiguity and ineffability are the film's great assets.

Kiarostami invokes the cinematic past here - the strongest echo for me was Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy in which Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders grappled with the same kind of inchoate longing for something lost - and the film has an old-fashioned aura. But being the work of a man from a country where women's voices are so silenced it also feels quite new.

Shimell (an operatic baritone making his film acting debut) plays English writer James Miller, in Tuscany to publicise his book, which advances the argument that a copy of an artwork is as good as the original.

His lecture is attended by Binoche's character (never named), who seems engrossed. The next day, he answers an invitation to visit her and they decide to fill the hours visiting a nearby town.

As they drive and walk, their relationship becomes by turns clearer and more obscure: her flirtatiousness, of which he seems unaware, has an edgy quality to it; his brittle urbanity barely conceals a faint hostility.

As he steps outside a cafe to take a phone call, the owner says something to her that makes it plain she thinks they are married. It's the cue for a subtle shift that may be no shift at all.

There's a mannered, even stilted, quality to the dialogue that may be the result of translation - Kiarostami wrote the screenplay in Farsi - and may also be entirely deliberate. Either way it feels apt for a film about pretence and artifice.

The direction is precise but virtually invisible and the fluid camerawork (by Luca Bigazzi) eschews all the obvious picture-postcard iconography in favour of an intense, minimalist style. The result is a cinematic story with the edge of a dream, which some may find frustrating, but it's never less than fascinating.

Stars: 4/5
Cast: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Running time: 106 mins
Rated: M In English, Italian and French with English subtitles
Verdict: Enigmatic and enchanting

- TimeOut