If you think you know what’s going on in “Certified Copy,” you’re probably wrong. The new film from legendary Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (and the first made outside his country of origin) is a brilliant intellectual puzzle that practically demands a second viewing.
But what makes you want to solve Kiarostami’s mystery — and it may not have a literal solution — is the deep emotional core of the film, illustrated by two fearless and affecting performances. One comes from Juliette Binoche, one of France’s greatest and most recognizable actresses, while the other comes from William Shimell, a British opera singer in his first screen role.
In the film, Shimell is an erudite British author named James Miller on a tour of Italy to support his new book, and Binoche plays a local gallery owner named Elle who agrees to take Miller on a day trip around Tuscany.
As they tool around, they start talking about the premise of his book, which is that counterfeit works of art can be just as important as the real thing. The meaning comes from how other people receive it, not from the thing itself.
For example, the couple comes across a lovely painting that had been hanging in a museum for two centuries, supposedly dating back to the Roman Empire. The painting is really a phony, but the museum decided to keep it up anyway. By being in a museum for 200 years, it acquired the significance of the genuine article.
After some erudite and lofty conversation about real vs. fake, Binoche’s character decides to put the premise to the test. She tells a cafe owner that Miller is actually her husband, and the two start inventing a 15-year marriage out of whole cloth, full of hazy memories, old jokes and subtle putdowns. One wonders if Kiarostami is sending up romantic comedies like “Before Sunrise,” where two strangers meet in a foreign locale and become infatuated. Here, the strangers skip the infatuation phase and go right to exasperated longtime companions.
That’s where “Certified Copy,” which is smart but sort of esoteric in its first half, really starts to put its hooks in. In the midst of conjuring up this fake marriage, seemingly genuine and long-simmering resentments start to bubble to the surface. The characters start engaging in some hurtful arguments, just like a real estranged couple might.
But these are strangers, right? So where is the vitriol coming from? Kiarostami really keeps us guessing, wondering what’s real and what’s pretend in the couple’s exchanges, which shift from tender to brutal. The ending is deliberately, even frustratingly, ambiguous. After a lot of thought, I came to my own plausible explanation for what was happening, but I certainly wouldn’t swear by it.
To build the intimacy between the characters, many of Kiarostami’s shots use the point-of-view of one or the other, gazing across a table at the other, or side by side in a car. He favors long single-take scenes of dialogue and moments of silence, such as the scene where Binoche is shrouded in near-darkness and, behind her, we see a joyful wedding party.
Above all, the film keeps us off balance. We’re never sure what we’re seeing or what will happen next. Miller’s cultured exterior can suddenly crumble to reveal a prickly, obstinate interior. And Binoche’s character can fly into fits of frustration or even rage, only to soften just as quickly. The result is that the viewer feels very “present” while watching the movie, paying close attention and never taking anything we see at face value.
Can we trust anything we see in “Certified Copy”? The only thing I can say for certain is that we can put our trust in the hands of a master filmmaker like Kiarostami, who engages the mind at the same time he pierces the heart. “Certified Copy” is the real deal.