Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is an elegant, enigmatic puzzle. Kiarostami’s scenario opens with a reading in the town of Arezzo, outside Florence. James Miller (William Shimell), a visiting English author, is here to discuss his book Certified Copy, a highbrow work of cultural theory, with a small but respectful crowd of culture vultures. In the front row is an admiring woman (Juliette Binoche) identified only as “Elle,” i.e., “She” in French.
The next day, James turns up at Elle’s antique shop and she proposes a Sunday drive to a nearby town, to show him a celebrated artistic forgery — the perfect lure, it would seem, for a man who likes to mull over questions of authenticity.
Once Elle and James embark on their quasi date, a viewer wondering where this story is headed might assume that the film will track the mating ritual of a couple tony expats. Kiarostami finds a way to make a long exchange of banter between them not just interesting visually but quietly spectacular: As Elle and James drive out of Arezzo, the sight of the old buildings continually receding in the windshield is hypnotic — it’s as if no one has ever filmed a couple in a car before. (The first of many kudos to director of photography Luca Bigazzi.)
Elle and James head to the town of Lucignano, but you could say their true destination is the land of deep cinema, a realm where time and space are subject to expert formal manipulation. The two of them stroll through the absurdly picturesque town, surrounded by other tourists, as well as couples about to be married.
They stop in a café. James steps out to take a long phone call, and the elderly Italian woman who runs the café starts talking to Elle about James in the assumption that he’s Elle’s husband. Elle plays along — at first, you might think, so as not to embarrass the old woman, but then seemingly out of spite, as if she’s playing a bitter joke at the distracted James’ expense. The pivotal moment comes when James returns… and he too plays along with the conceit that he and Elle are married.
If you had Certified Copy pegged as genteel arthouse fare (“Take a romantic journey through Tuscany…” went the tagline in the U.S. newspaper ads), Kiarostami now starts pulling the rug out from under you; he has something more disorienting in mind. Elle and James refuse to drop the act that they’re a long-married couple, even after they leave the café, and Elle becomes increasingly irascible toward her emotionally withdrawn “husband.” The simulation overtakes the real.
The viewer has to start reconsidering everything that’s come so far: Have James and Elle kept up the pretense as a way for her to keep needling him, and him too polite and diffident to call it off, or were they only pretending to have never met before? To paraphrase a lyric by Courtney Love — perhaps a name not often associated with the work of Abbas Kiarostami — are they faking it so real they are beyond fake? And if so, at what point were they faking it? We remember that earlier James had lectured on the overrated aspects of originals and the merits of copies, forgeries and fakes. (To cite another ‘90s rock lyric, perhaps James’ book should have been titled Even Better than the Real Thing.)
As the afternoon wears on, it increasingly appears as if Elle and James are a long-time couple whose marriage has reached a decisive moment, possibly a breaking point. The tension between them is heightened by the ubiquitous presence of beaming young couples getting hitched in the impossibly romantic environs of Lucignano. It’s as if the town has become not just an emotional labyrinth but a customized private hell for Elle and James.
Like Mulholland Drive, Certified Copy is a movie that the viewer can never experience the same way twice. When it was over, I immediately wanted to see it again, to see what might be unspoken between Elle and James in the early scenes, what might provide a clue as to the true nature of their relationship.
A second viewing makes clear that to parse this sublimely tricky film for “clues” is beside the point. A handful of ambiguities sprinkled throughout the opening scenes might suggest that James and Elle already have a shared history and that their first ‘date’ is actually the fiction — if one is inclined to read the film that way.
But Kiarostami eschews signaling that there is a ‘right’ interpretation. The film declines to explain itself. James opines that a work of art is defined by subjective perception, and so it is with his and Elle’s relationship.
Can emotions and relationships be judged in the same light as works of art? An original, authentic passion, to be followed by years of copies, echoes, reproductions? It’s as if Elle latches onto James as a substitute for the husband who let her down so badly. But in the moment, there’s nothing qualified about her emotions toward James — the distinction between the genuine and the ersatz no longer exists.
For all its mind-bending qualities, Certified Copy is hardly a chilly or cerebral work. Many reviewers have elaborated on how it harks back to earlier European arthouse classics, but what struck me the most is how satisfying the film is on a visceral level. With a light touch and deft wit, Kiarostami hurtles the viewer through the stations of a 15-year relationship within a brisk 106-minute running time. What part of it is true? All of it, in the moment that we’re watching it.
For more on the performances in Certified Copy, click here.