DIRECTED BY: Abbas Kiarostami
FEATURING: , William Shimell
PLOT: A French antiques dealer and an English author spend a day together in rural Tuscany, discussing (and often fighting about) art, philosophy, and family. As the hours pass it becomes apparent that these supposed strangers may share a much deeper relationship.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While there is definitely a turning point that makes for a very weird, confusing moment, most of this film is well-acted arthouse drama. The questionable nature of the lead characters’ relationship is the only thing about it that’s strange, and in the end it proves to be a comment on the sad nature of a failed marriage.
COMMENTS: Bickering about art, literature, and everyday life while they move around a scenic Tuscan village, the central characters of Certified Copy initially act much like you’d expect a couple in a European arthouse movie to act. They meander through beautiful scenery laced with antique sculptures and architecture, surrounded by jolly tourists and locals who at times provide fodder for their good-natured arguments. They sip cappuccino at a cute cafe. They speak in English, French, and Italian. They visit a museum. At first James (played by opera singer William Shimell) primarily discusses his most recent book, called “Certified Copy,” and Elle (the incomparable Juliette Binoche) talks about her family, especially her problematic teenage son. After a conversation with a nosy but well-meaning cafe server, Elle suddenly becomes furious with James, and he gradually takes on the role of her absent husband.
Whether James really is her husband remains unclear, though it seems possible that these characters are play-acting at this relationship, creating a copy of the missing thing in keeping with their discussions of copies versus originals. James takes on a role and Elle goes along with it, eventually regressing to the giddy romantic girl she was when they married 14 years prior, attempting to understand where their relationship fell apart and perhaps rekindle their long-lost passions. Their conversation continues to wax and wane, moving through lighthearted observations and dark memories, always ambiguous enough to keep the viewer at a distance despite the intimate handheld camerawork.
This is very much an actor’s movie, with Binoche and Shimell shining equally in the lead roles. He is sharp and quiet, always speaking logically and with a cold, intelligent air. She is bright and volatile, shifting from laughter to tears in the blink of an eye as her expressive face betrays a web of complex emotional struggles. His stoic presentation, rarely shaken except for one telling scene at a restaurant, is a perfect foil for her changeable nature. They take turns being sympathetic or aggressive, and while they have so many points of contention it’s a wonder they ever (maybe) had a romantic connection, their chemistry is strong enough to make whatever love they may have shared believable.
It is the mystery surrounding the sudden, unexplained shift in James and Elle’s characters that marks Certified Copy as something special, and keeps its audience focusing closely on every word, every knowing look. Is their relationship just a copy of the real thing, a therapeutic performance piece for Elle? Do they still love one another or are they blinded by nostalgia? Is the medium of film itself only capable of showing copies of true events, shadows of true emotions? Kiarostami does not reveal what is real or unreal, and it is up to us to wade through the wandering dialogue and gorgeous cinematography to find our own truth.
CRITERION SPECIAL FEATURES: The Criterion release includes a new interview with Kiarostami discussing the film, the making-of documentary Let’s See “Copia conforme”, a booklet with an essay by film critic Godfrey Cheshire, and the director’s rare 1977 feature The Report in its entirety.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Kiarostami is like a magician who shows you how he does it and still leaves you mesmerized. There’s an effrontery to his method… The film is not so much about reality and fantasy but about deepening levels of reality.” –Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor.