Review: Certified Copy
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
If you listen closely just after the central turning point in “Certified Copy,” you'll hear the French-speaking female lead (Juliette Binoche, credited only as “She”) refer to her son as the “spitting image” of the male lead, James Miller (William Shimell), with whom she's spending the afternoon in Tuscany. Unless ears deceive, “spitting image” is the equivalent of the French “copie conforme,” as is the title of this film. It's an expression that may well have landed right under “Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy” on the list of alternate English-language titles for British author James's new book, also called “Certified Copy.” (Got that?)
The movie begins at a well-attended discussion of the book, where James, beguiling even in his distance and pseudo-cynical self-absorption, unfurls his philosophies about how duplicates of artistic works still carry a great deal of merit, two reasons among many being that the duplicate leads one to the original, and that the original is essentially already a copy of something else. It all calls to mind the writings of Walter Benjamin, whose landmark essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” has inevitably popped up in multiple reviews of “Certified Copy.” Using as a springboard the Benjaminian argument of whether or not an artwork's essence – or “aura” – is lost in duplication, richly celebrated Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami dives into a beautifully befuddling meditation on the fluidity of relationships, which he regards with the same indefinite subjectivity with which one views the art world. Reminiscent of the deliciously dialogue-laden “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” and featuring one of the more fascinating rug-pulls of recent memory, Kiarostami's latest is a conversation piece in more ways than one.
Binoche's character is an antiques dealer and shop owner whose relation to James is unclear save her being his guide during this Tuscan leg of an apparent book tour. Meeting at her store then driving into the countryside, the two have an odd and mounting tension between them, which we initially chalk up to a simple personality clash. She's an uncomplicated romantic who believes he forces his opinions on others; he's an interminably logical and practical thinker who, though in the business of evaluating viewer responses to art, has little time for emotional minutiae. She carries on like a see-saw of frustration and eager-to-please excitement; he remains cool, analytical and austere. An hour of the film's running time passes, and the pair's afternoon together has unfolded like a very awkward first date, where the attraction is in place, but neither will likely call the other for a second go at it. Then they stop at a café, and things take a subtle, yet tectonic shift. Are they in fact husband and wife? Have they been for 15 years? Is her son his son, too? Or are their sudden, knowing exchanges merely their way of experimentally prolonging the café owner's assumption that they're married?
As moviegoers, we grow accustomed to straightforward narratives that offer clear-cut answers and hit a required quota of banal plot points. Too rarely do we see something so bent to the will of a visionary that perceptions are skewed in support of the emotions and themes being conveyed. It requires trust on the part of the audience, which Kiarostami handily earns and repays in “Certified Copy.” I'll admit that the 70-year-old auteur's most beloved works (“Close-Up,” “The Koker Trilogy,” “Taste of Cherry”) have long eluded me, but there's no mistaking his mastery, regardless of your familiarity with it. The ideas he juggles, which have universal appeal in their romantic implications, and relevance in this era when the original has never been more undervalued, are shared via luscious language that rolls off the tongues of his marvelous lead actors, one a first-timer and the other a Cannes Best Actress winner. The oscillating mood he creates is as delightfully disconcerting as Binoche's stunning face, which he often captures looking directly into the camera. The setting he surveys, a town called Lucignano, where couples venture to christen or strengthen their love, is a medieval beauty admired as a sun-drenched character all its own.
The film's greatest achievement is that it becomes so surprisingly profound that it bypasses its own conceit (or proves its own argument). Haunted and bewitched (if not, necessarily, duped), we fall deep into whatever's going on between She and James, whose emotions, though strangely volatile, grow increasingly, grippingly convincing. That they are perhaps play-acting is a notion that loses ground. Their feelings become representative of a greater set of feelings, which is also supported and represented by the husbands and wives they encounter in the village. As the end nears, it matters very little if they are indeed a married couple, or just the spitting image of one.