Certified Copy (France/Italy/Belgium, 2010)

April 27, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Certified Copy Poster

SPOILER WARNING: Discussing the "meaning" of Certified Copy demands providing an interpretation of certain actions and motivations that could prejudice a viewer who has not seen the movie before reading the review. Take this into consideration before proceeding, especially if you intend to see the film.

For roughly the first 50 minutes of its running time, Certified Copy progresses like a straightforward drama with romantic inclinations. Two characters, a well-known British author named James Miller (William Shimell) and an unnamed woman (Juliette Binoche) who is a fan, spend an afternoon together in her antiques shop, taking a road trip in her car, and wandering the streets of a little town in Tuscany. They discuss philosophy, often returning to his assertion that, in art, a copy can be as good as the original. To bolster his argument, he points out that the Mona Lisa isn't an original - it's Leonardo Da Vinci's copy of a real woman's face. And when a copy is more beautiful than its source, why should it be denigrated? These are issues that writer/director Abbas Kiarostami lays out for the audience during the movie's first half. Is there a payoff? Perhaps. It depends on individual interpretation of what happens beyond the mid-way point.

While in the village, James and the woman visit a coffee shop. He steps outside to take a phone call while she remains within, chatting with the lady who owns the place. The proprietress mistakes her customers for a married couple and remarks that James is a wonderful husband. This "mistaken identity" allows the woman to reveal a catalogue of deficiencies attributable to her "husband." When James returns, she tells him of the proprietress' assumption and he decides to "play along." For the rest of the movie, they interact and argue like a married couple whose fifteenth anniversary has recently passed. She's annoyed with his rarely being home, with his cold demeanor, and with his having left her to raise their son on her own. A viewer who starts watching Certified Copy around the mid-point will experience nothing more radical than a simple story of a man and a woman assessing the state of their marriage.

The central puzzle is, of course, how to reconcile the two halves - something that can be done, but not seamlessly. One interpretation is that the first 50 minutes represents role-playing on the part of the husband and wife - a way to spice up their marriage. Another interpretation is that the final 50 minute segment is when the role-playing takes place - these two are strangers but the woman is using the man as a stand-in for her husband, and he is a willing participant. The evidence - such as the reaction of the teenage son - weigh in favor of the latter, although not overwhelmingly so. And perhaps the title offers a clue. Consider: could it be that the "marriage" between James and the woman is not real but a "copy" of her actual marriage?

It's possible that neither interpretation is correct. Kiarostami has left this intentionally obtuse, almost maddeningly so. Perhaps the best way to watch Certified Copy is to simply accept the disconnect and focus on the particulars of the conversation at any time - including the dialogue, the filming technique, and the superb performances. The level of artifice is high - it's impossible to lose oneself in the story because the framing tugs at the viewer, reminding him that the "reality" of the film's world is not consistent. The basic plot - a man and a woman traveling and talking - is reminiscent of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Before Sunset films, but the way in which Certified Copy calls into question the nature of reality is more akin to Inception.

Juliette Binoche, who is an international star, and William Shimell, who is not, are effective foils for one another. Binoche's performance resonates forcefully because her character is on an emotional roller coaster. If there's an arc, it's for her character, not his. She begins as a star-struck fan then passes through a gradual phase of disillusionment as James doesn't live up to her expectations. Then she's the aggrieved wife who has been left alone while he travels around the world putting work on a higher pedestal than his family. The audience sees things more through her eyes than his, which lends credence to the possibility that, in the second half, he has become a stand-in for her husband, not the real thing. At any rate, both performances are strong; in spite of how the script contorts their world, we care about them.

Kiarostami, the acclaimed Iranian director whose canvas has moved beyond his native country, directs with a slow, unhurried pace. He favors long, unbroken takes and close-ups. Often, he will use unexpected angles, such as when his camera focuses not on the person speaking but on someone peripherally involved in the scene. Kiarostami's approach intensifies intimacy but, in a movie of this sort, it also creates a deeper sense of unease.

Certified Copy doesn't offer easy answers, although it asks plenty of questions. In some ways, it's a simple character drama, but the central conundrum disallows an uncomplicated interpretation. I was never bored. The first half is just long enough to get us to know the characters and, after that, my mind was working overtime rationalizing what was happening. Ultimately, understanding is not the most important thing about Certified Copy; making the effort to understand is.

Certified Copy (France/Italy/Belgium, 2010)

Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell
Screenplay: Abbas Kiarostami
Cinematography: Luca Bigazzi
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2011-03-11
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In English, Italian and French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1