“Certified Copy,” is an endless hall of mirrors whose reflections multiply as its story of a middle-aged couple driving through Tuscany carries them into a metaphysical labyrinth.The travelers are a beautiful, high-strung woman, identified only as Elle or She (Juliette Binoche), who runs an antiques shop in Arezzo, and a British author, James Miller (the operatic baritone William Shimell), whom she meets after he gives a lecture on his new book, “Certified Copy.” Shimell’s James Miller is a British art historian who shows up in Tuscany to lecture on his latest book, which is about the aesthetic blurriness between originals and copies.
Elle, a single mother with a 10-year-old son, has eyes for James. After the lecture, the two drive in her car to the village of Lucignano and along the way debate aesthetics and begin to bicker. When they stop at a trattoria in Lucignano, the cafe owner assumes that they are a long-married couple and shares her traditional views of men, women and marriage. A statue in the village square of a woman serenely resting her head on a man’s shoulder is scrutinized for its fundamental truth about the sexes. After the meal, during which James has a hissy fit about the wine, he and Elle slowly fall into the roles the waitress has assigned them. By the time they visit a hotel in which Elle insists they spent their wedding night, you are uncertain whether they are collaborating in mutual playacting or if their initial meeting was actually a reunion after a long separation. If their 15-year “marriage” is just a facsimile, then the game they are playing, in which emotional darts are tossed, seems less and less frivolous.
Which is the real relationship, and which is the counterfeit? Were they a couple pretending to meet for the first time or a new couple pretending to be married? I believe that to begin with they are really meeting for the first time, and later they are really an established couple. Certainly, Binoche reacts with exasperation to James sometimes, but never asks about his own life or marital situation, and seems in her way quite as weirdly solipsistic as he is. An anecdote about the copy of Michelangelo’s David in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria leads to the pair discovering an extraordinary connection between them – which is never developed, nor mentioned again. The unreality caused by the characters never remarking on their role-play (strange for a stuffy Brit) never leaves the film.
Perhaps Kiarostami’s intention is to demonstrate how the reality is whatever the artist chooses, and that he can transfer from original art to a copy in midstream. Or perhaps that’s not possible.
Before the trattoria the main topic of conversation — authenticity in art — is a continuation of James’s lecture, during which Elle pointedly challenged his ideas. Artworks that were presumed to be originals and later found out to be forgeries are discussed. The debate leaps into a broader contemplation of art versus life. Isn’t the Mona Lisa a reproduction of its model? Why does an everyday object as depicted by Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol take on value when exhibited in a museum? Aren’t we all DNA “replicas” of our ancestors? What does it imply about art and reality that not one of the gorgeous cypress trees lining the road they travel is like any other? Does that make each an original work of art?
The voluptuous appeal of Lucignano, a village where young couples flock to marry in a local chapel, is lost on him. His first impulse is to sneer at the naïveté of newlyweds who believe that their happiness will never end. The place is a vibrant paradise of stunning architecture, ringing church bells and cooing pigeons; the scented, sun-drenched atmosphere overflows with romantic promise.
Shimell, an operatic baritone making an assured film debut, plays a British art critic, flogging the Italian translation of his recent book at a speaking appearance.James (Shimell) believes in the virtues of originality and says that a good copy of an artwork is as good as the original. (How he stretches that one idea into a whole book must be left to the imagination).
Binoche, as a French-born local shopkeeper, takes an interest in the reserved, prickly author and offers to show him around Tuscany – at least until it’s time for him to catch his train that evening. Ms. Binoche, whose performance won the Cannes Film Festival award for best actress last spring, humanizes the film and lends its theoretical substructure flesh and blood and emotional weight. For all her prickliness, Elle, who speaks fluent English, French and Italian, may be at home in the world of ideas but she is also a woman of deep feeling. She brings “Certified Copy” to intense, pulsing life.
Certified Copy has resemblances to other Kiarostami films: there are extended dialogue scenes in cars, and business with mobile phones indicating a breakdown in communication. He contrives an elegant sight gag for an ageing French tourist, played in cameo by the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, talking on his hands-free device. Only for a moment does Kiarostami display his most eccentric tic, cancelling the shot-reverse-shot convention by keeping the camera on the listener, not the speaker. It is as distinctive a mannerism as Ozu’s direct sightlines into camera – a style that Kiarostami employs when the two are talking to each other. Kiarostami may have absorbed other influences. Certified Copy has something of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, and I wonder if he might even have been influenced by Woody Allen and Diane Keaton’s initial squabble in Manhattan about everything from Van Gogh to Heinrich Böll.
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami; written by Mr. Kiarostami, adapted by Massoumeh Lahidji; director of photography, Luca Bigazzi; edited by Bahman Kiarostami; sets by Giancarlo Basili and Ludovica Ferrario; produced by Marin Karmitz, Nathanaël Karmitz, Charles Gillibert and Angelo Barbagallo; released by Sundance Selects. In Italian, French and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Juliette Binoche (Elle, or She), William Shimell (James Miller), Jean-Claude Carrière (the Man at the Square), Agathe Natanson (the Woman at the Square), Gianna Giachetti (the Cafe Owner), Adrian Moore (the Son), Angelo Barbagallo (the Interpreter), Andrea Laurenzi (the Guide), Filippo Troiano (the Bridegroom) and Manuela Balsimelli (the Bride).