Director: Abbass Kiarostami
Starring: Juliette Binoche, William Shimmel
What does it mean for something to be authentic and to be of value? If a reproduction is as beautiful as the original, does the fact that it is a copy diminish its value, or is the value determined by what it inspires in the observer? If the observer never has a clue that what they’re looking at is a copy, but think that it’s beautiful, have they somehow been deceived? And just what makes something “real” in the first place? Abbass Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is a film that plays with, and inspires, a lot of questions both textually through its dialogue and subtextually through its elusive construction and sly comedy. A film of the “two people talking” variety, Certified Copy is a slippery piece of work that is continually deconstructing its premise and then reconstructing it in a slightly different form, demonstrating Kiarostami’s commanding skill as a storyteller as he changes course midstream without in any way disrupting the flow of the film or making it incomprehensible. Certified Copy is a masterwork that few filmmakers could have successfully pulled off.
The film is follows a man and a woman, though who they are to each other gradually shifts as the film goes on and the line between the “real” and the “performance” gets blurred. The man is James Miller (William Shimell), a British writer who has come to Tuscany to promote his latest book, “Certified Copy.” The woman, credited as “she” (Juliette Binoche, luminous, perfect) is a French antiques dealer who offers to take him on a daytrip to the countryside after attending his lecture. During the trip they discuss the book and debate the difference between what is “original” and what is “copy,” and though they’ve ostensibly just met, there is a degree of comfort and intimacy in their interaction which begs the question of whether they are truly strangers. When the pair stops for coffee, the rules of their interaction and the film change. The café owner mistakes them for husband and wife and the woman plays along… but is she just playing? Their conversation from this point forward certainly seems to have roots in a shared history and the tenor of two people who have been in a relationship for an extended period of time and have learned to be amused by some of each other’s foibles and pushed to the brink by others. So which is it: are they strangers who begin pretending to be a couple, or are they a couple who start off having pretended to be strangers? More importantly, does it matter?
As written and directed by Kiarostami, Certified Copy is a film that moves easily between modes, premises, and tones. At times it plays like a searing drama of marital discord and at other times as a comedy, and in some scenes it starts out as one and then becomes the other. It’s both funny and horrible to watch the couple fight because there’s such a ring of truth to it, to the way that their arguments begin so casually and escalate so quickly, and because Binoch and Shimell (making his acting debut and admirably holding his own against his counterpart) are able to imbue their interactions with such a deep feeling of intimacy. As Kiarostami moves seamlessly from one premise to another, giving the audience ample evidence for both, the actors move with him; and just as the director maintains control of his story, Binoche and Shimell are able to maintain control of their characters, steering them through the curves of the story and not letting them get off the track. If nothing else, Certified Copy is an amazing example of a storyteller and performers in control of their instruments.
One of the strengths of the film is the way that Kiarostami consistently underscores the question of “real” versus “copy.” The characters spend a great deal of time discussing the subject, of course, but there are numerous other ways that it’s brought into the mix. It’s in the way that the film opens at the lecture with the host introducing James in Italian and making a joke, followed by James beginning his talk in English and making what is essentially the same joke, only very slightly different. It’s in the way that later in the film the woman translates for James the words being spoken in Italian by a museum tour guide. It’s in the way that Kiarostami frequently shoots the characters reflected either in mirrors or windows – in one particularly striking shot Binoche is framed in both a mirror and in the rear-view mirror of a motorcycle parked in front of it. We’re consistently confronted with reproductions but it’s done with such subtlety and grace that it never starts to feel like Kiarostami is hitting us over the head with it. Certified Copy is a fascinating, wonderfully executed piece of work, one which loses none of its magic on multiple viewings, and in fact only becomes more absorbing each time you see it.