The latest film from Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy begins with the same joke twice. While waiting for author James Miller (William Shimell) to give a lecture his translator (Angelo Barbagallo) apologizes for James’ lateness and says “he can’t blame the traffic, he is walking from upstairs.” The restless crowd responds with no audible laughter. Moments later James walks into the room and unknowing that it has just been said re-uses the same joke. This time several members of the crowd emit soft laughter. Within the first few minutes of the film, Kiarostami has already laid out his brilliant thesis – that when it comes to art, history, or even comedy the copy can have meaning in a way that makes it as valuable the original.
This sets up the audience nicely for the existential journey that is to follow in Certified Copy a rich examination of art, love, and the authenticity of life. Kiarostami’s first film away from his home country of Iran hits every note just right and creates an environment that encompasses the viewer. With beautiful cinematography, pitch-perfect pacing, and fantastic performances from both leads Certified Copy is a certified hit.
Opera singer William Shimmell makes his cinematic debut starring in this film as author James Miller, who has just published a book about artistic copies where he begs the question whether a copy of an artwork can have the same value as the original it is based on. The always radiant Juliette Binoche plays Elle, a French antique dealer whose occupation causes her to have special interest in Miller’s book. She confronts him and they embark on a day trip to a remote village in Tuscany to challenge each other’s conceptions about art and realism.
Comparable to the films of Richard Linklater or David Mamet, Certified Copy is not about where the characters go, but the discussions they have along the way. At a small café a barista mistakes James and Elle for a married couple, and is never corrected. Then without provocation the two characters begin to play-act as if they were a married couple, immediately challenging the direction the narrative had been leading. Have these two characters known each other before? Are they so committed to proving the value of a copy over the original that they are going to continue this “copy” of marriage? Or are they a real married couple looking for some excitement?
It is important to the story that we never find out the answer to those questions. Kiarostami shows the power that art has to transform as a copied piece of artwork the characters visit together seems to inspire their sudden urge to change the spirit of their relationship. The portrait of a marriage is mostly unflattering, but it occasionally reaches moments of true romance, particularly in the third act where the couple revisits a location from their past (if they do in fact have a past). The characters constantly bicker, but the film never feels cynical and it seems to promote the idea that love is worth everything. Even if you are unlucky enough to find true love, it is always possible to fake it.
Juliette Binoche is brilliant as the bubbly and enthusiastic leading lady who seems to be leading the direction of the conversation for most of the film. The story moves along like a long-form improvised scene with each character continually providing a “yes, and…” to continue the flow of the story. Just like in any improvised stage scene, even the best performers are apt to occasionally break character and Kiarostami seems to emphasize this by having the characters look directly at the camera, breaking the 4th wall. Just like Bertolt Brecht, Kiarostami never wants the viewer to forget that they are watching a piece of art, not a piece of life so he often has the actors look straight into the camera to distract any audience members from moments of escapism they might be experiencing.
Italian cinematography Luca Bigazzi beautifully captures the Tuscan scenery with the perfect amount of lighting throughout the whole film as if the entirety of shooting occurred during the magic hour – the last hour before sunset. There’s a lot of natural beauty for the camera to be pointed at, and Kiarostami adds some important set pieces to make duality a theme shown through the mise-en-scène. The characters are often viewed through a reflection on a mirror, window pane, or glass covering a picture. This seems to present the idea that we are never looking directly into the characters’ souls, but at projections of their outer self. This further challenges the story’s authenticity and adds to Kiarostami’s challenge to the audience.
At the conclusion of Certified Copy the audience will be left with far more questions than answers and the discussions that will be inspired are undoubtedly one of the greatest values of the film. Unlike author James Miller’s thesis that artistic copies can have equal value to their original, it is unlikely that Kiarostami’s film will be successfully imitated anytime soon.
Bottom Line: See Certified Copy with a small group of close friends and plan to head to a coffee shop for discussion immediately afterward.