Certified Copy (2010, Abbas Kiarostami)


In most respects, Certified Copy — the first film by legendary Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami to be shot entirely outside of his home country — is simply a film about a conversation. In the oft-cited fashion of Before Sunset, it’s one that takes place between an author (William Shimell) and an antique specialist (Juliette Binoche) who seem scarcely to know one another until they’re mistaken for a married couple and the misnomer receives no correction, at which point they begin communicating as though they’ve been fifteen years married, replete with what seems an intricate back story. There are suggestions of deeper, more mindbending things at play with a continued motif in regard to the nature of genuine, original objets d’art and copies thereof. Have the pair become a copy of their former relationships in some supernatural sense, are they simply acting the part, have they undergone a transformation, or were we deceived from the start? The film is distant and standoffish about these questions, treating the “twist” as an almost mundanely orthodox subject change or logical mood swing.

However intellectually coy this story is, it does a brilliant job of getting inside its characters’ heads, even as their backstories begin to spin out of control — Binoche’s nameless protagonist in particular is a marvelously vivid romantic heroine of sorts spread woefully thin against odd circumstances and an increasingly bleak worldview. The absolute charm of her performance, beautiful and tough and just kind of fucked up, is a major draw here. And what’s most hypnotic of all about the film is its wondrous fluidity of movement — from the moment the central pair begin their walk, we never leave them for any extended period, and their travelogue around beautiful Tuscany becomes ours (even if to some degree it has the same location-porn mentality as Woody Allen’s European films; if you don’t mind that, you won’t mind this). I had to interrupt the movie at the halfway point to run an errand, which I wouldn’t normally mention here except to say that it was dizzying to be taken out of the absorbingly romantic but realistic world of the film back into everyday existence with such jarring suddenness.

The largest barrier to really appreciating Certified Copy is with the other central performance. The writer James Miller, portrayed by first-time film actor (an opera singer by day) Shimell, is the first character we come to know as he gives a talk about his book and ends up revealing the thesis of the movie, that “authenticity” is a faulty concept (even an original work being a “copy” of its inspiration) and our emotional responses to a work are what ultimately matter. It’s a bad sign that Shimell makes this Wellesian concept so leaden and boring, and quite inauspicious in ways that sadly turn out to be quite valid. He brings the film down considerably for the duration, giving a colorless and banal read to a character clearly written to be something more than the arrogant asshole who ended up on the screen. I felt roughly the same way about Shimell’s read of Miller, especially after the crucial halfway point, as I did about Jacques Perrin’s deadweight turn as the adult hero in Cinema Paradiso — a slick showboating performance that doesn’t match the corresponding film at all, especially when Binoche is constantly upping the ante and calmly seducing with every moment.

Who knows if it’s deliberate, but there’s also a bit of cinematic sleight of hand here that seems arbitrary and even a little dishonest. Certified Copy tries to tantalize a broad audience with its Western film-derived conceit of “puzzle solving,” whereby to oversimplify a bit we’re presented with one situation and slowly are given hints that it’s a lie or deception, but there’s no absolute indication that the married couple our travel companions become in the second half are any more “real” than the bickering art patrons with mutual disgust and longing, if either is “real,” if it even matters in a movie whether something is “real” or “fake” since the truth is it all is “fake”… just as Miller was saying at the outset. That’s all plenty valid, as much a Godardian trick as a Wellesian one; my issue is how much work Certified Copy does to try and make an issue of the cerebral, is-it-or-isn’t-it tomfoolery that calls to mind nothing so much as David Fincher’s ridiculous Michael Douglas vehicle The Game. It’s another side of its rampant Eurocentrism, which I admit I fell for; the film engages with notions it has no intention of exploring. By arguing that what is or isn’t “really” happening is not the point, Copy shoots itself in the foot, since its entire narrative thesis hinges on this point rather than the often quite vivid emotional interplay between the characters, which should have been enough for an entire movie. I’d love to have seen that movie, perhaps even with Shimell involved, without it having to compete with the window dressing of a point-scoring argument about its own existence.

No doubt, Certified Copy is a fascinating and deeply involving film that looks absolutely perfect — more than perfect, it seems. The best tactic is probably to keep it simple and just enjoy the buttons it pushes; the overly rational need to interpret will serve only to dilute the movie’s best elements, which are seductive even when they subscribe to art-film clichés (I mean, a matronly hostess giving a speech about the value of a good husband to the heroine? What year is it?). I think I prefer to think of this, forget all that Linklater stuff, as a sort of earthy rebound of Murnau’s Sunrise, surreally taking a couple through the motions of an excitingly rekindled love: long drives, trips to museums and about town, the occasional desire to kill one another, eating out, seeing other people, crossing the street and feeling as if they’re in an orb that can be only sporadically infiltrated, and finally the hotel room and the frustrations or seductions that come with that. Only all the while, they’re so wrapped up in intellectual conversation they barely notice it all.

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