Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
Written by: Abbas Kiarostami (screenplay)
Starring: Juliette Binoche and William Shimell
Romance in the movies typically unfolds or unravels before us; there are Meet Cutes and ugly break-ups. Certified Copy, a masterful film from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, is both of those things, and then inevitably neither of them.
The film chronicles the relationship between Elle (Juliette Binoche) and James (William Shimell), two people who seem to meet in Tuscany for some kind of gathering while James is on a book tour, and then as the movie progresses, you realize the true depth of their relationship. At first it shares much in common with Richard Linkletter’s Before Sunset, but the true challenge of this film is filling in the back story, whereas Linkletter’s film was a sequel of sorts.
James and Elle do have a history, though I hesitate to reveal its true origins because the entire point of the movie swings on individual interpretation. James’ book (also titled Certified Copy) is about recognizing the beauty of art whether it is copied or original. That book is an intense topic of discussion for the two as Elle takes him from Tuscany to the small village of Lucignano, where they wander the streets and enter the museums.
Lucignano’s natural historical beauty is a great asset to the film both aesthetically and narratively. For such a small village, it is filled with artistic treasures for the two to look at and either admire or despise. Kiarostami captures the atmosphere of it in almost every frame, showing the bustling streets without taking any detours from his two stars.
It is a popular wedding day in this village because it is said to bring greater luck to the couples. Surrounded by new brides as well as elderly couples, the two discuss their interpretations of art, life and the intersection of the two. James is an unabashed intellectual, a man who has a clever explanation for nearly everything that comes up between them. Elle, on the other hand, refutes him by saying that life is not the way it is often portrayed, even if that portrayal is beautiful.
Kiarostami uses these two vastly different viewpoints to examine the true meaning of authenticity. He literally tackles them both head-on, aiming the camera directly at each of them on several occasions so that they appear to be addressing the audience as well as the other. Elle’s memories are a big tool in advancing the story and unveiling its secrets, mostly because of James’ forgetfulness. Would her memories be more authentic if he shared the same passion about them as she does?
Questions like these arise as effortlessly as these two actors’ ability to switch languages. Though the film is mostly in English, there are entire conversations in Italian and French. Binoche is especially extraordinary at creating and maintaining this impeccably written character in all three of them. Kiarostami strives for his own authenticity by toying with language in this film.
Certified Copy feels truly original and yet familiar. Binoche and Shimell are exceptional at revealing just the right amount at just the correct moments. Conversations that initially seem to have no meaning then reveal themselves to have great meaning later on.
The movie does have an exceptionally clever way of avoiding the cliches of its supposed genre, but what truly makes it great is its dedication to something greater than just the relationship of these two people. When these two bicker with each other, it obviously becomes very personal to them when you see their emotional responses, but they are also engaging in an important intellectual dilemma when it comes to all art and especially the movies.
A movie’s success hinges on its ability to immerse you in its own reality, yet it is still not an authentic reality. What Certified Copy does is show an initial reality, and then peal it away almost completely by the end. Nothing appears to have any authenticity, and yet it is still very real.