Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy begins as one film and ends as another entirely. I love it when a film can do that. How rare it is to be taken on a genuine ride by a movie; to follow a path shrouded in mystery, one that is unpredictable at every turn and still intriguing after the credits roll. Most impressive is that Certified Copy is not a murder mystery or a psychological thriller, but an intimate relationship drama that recalls Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy wandered the streets of Vienna and Paris respectively. Those films proved you need only one day – an intense, emotionally-charged, conversation-filled day – to fall in love with someone. Certified Copy captures the contemplative tone of those films, similarly takes place over the course of one afternoon, and yet suggests something far grander: you need only one day to invent a fifteen-year history with someone. Allow me to elaborate.
Juliette Binoche stars as a French antiquities dealer living in Tuscany with her son. She offers to drive around a visiting British author – played by opera singer William Shimell –who has recently published a novel all about the creative value of forgeries, reproduced works of art and certified copies (hey, that’s the title!). The two strangers start the day on good terms, debating the merits of different pieces of art and pondering the possibility of two people viewing the same object and coming away with a completely different interpretation.
At a café, a waitress mistakes the duo for a married couple. But they don’t correct her. In fact, they begin to bicker as if they’ve actually spent the past fifteen years resenting one another, hiding feelings from one another, and most devastating of all, falling in and out of love with one another. Are they just having a bit of fun with the wait staff? Their role-playing spills out into the streets of Tuscany, and their “improvised” barbs seem to cut close to the bone. Are they truly a married couple pretending to be strangers in a last ditch effort to spice up and save their marriage?
Perhaps they actually are strangers trapped in two crumbling marriages, taking advantage of their street theatre to air their grievances with their significant other. It’s telling that in the film’s final half, Binoche and Shimell rarely share the frame. DOP Luca Bigazzi separates them, and we witness each of them holding a conversation with an unseen second party. They’re not yelling at each other, but rather, engaging in separate arguments, either with themselves or their not-present partners. (Bigazzi plays a couple of nifty visual tricks on the audience that I wouldn’t dare spoil here). Or maybe they are just a couple of really devoted art critics, who have taken their debate about the value of “copies” and “reproductions” to its logical conclusion. As if you couldn’t already tell by the large number of rhetorical questions I’ve posed, I’m clearly divided on the issue. Regardless, all hail Binoche and Shimell for walking the tightrope and doing the impossible – maintaining characters who are purposefully vague, yet painfully stripping themselves bare in the performance.
I’m ashamed to say that I’m not entirely familiar with Kiarostami’s back-catalogue of films, although I understand his Taste of Cherry (which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes) also takes viewers on an enigmatic journey with many interpretations of the ending possible. After watching Certified Copy, I can’t wait to devour his earlier works and have my perception of reality and my understanding of cinematic narrative turned inside out. Sounds like a fun Friday night!
There are multiple ways to read Certified Copy; none wrong. That’s the beauty of it really. It is just like the art at the center of the film’s debate – different things to different people. It also reminds us that love – the great work of art – is just the same; perhaps even a projection of our own hopes, fears, expectations, guilt, dreams, regrets and imagination. Even within one relationship, it can be a million things.