‘Certified Copy’ may look like something you’ve seen before, but it isn’t

Still from Certified Copy. ()
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In Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, his first film shot outside of his native Iran, a middle-aged couple named James and, simply, “She” (William Shimell and Juliette Binoche) drive around the beautiful landscape of Tuscany. They talk about art, they talk about wine. They talk about the act of “seeing”: How do we perceive things? An ugly man is a prince to the wife who loves him.

They stop off at a museum, they stop off at a restaurant. Works of art surround their journey. This is Italy, after all. James has just written a book called Certified Copy, a study of originality in art: If the copy generates a response in you, then doesn’t that “certify” the copy’s value? Do you have to go to the Louvre to experience the Mona Lisa, or is it not possible to perceive its importance and emotion in a copy?

The art purists would rise in outrage at this, but James is not so sure. Binoche’s unnamed character is an art dealer, with an underground shop full of exquisite forgeries. She shows up at one of his book signings in the first scene of the film, and wants to talk to him more. They end up driving out to the country together in her car.

What follows is a dizzying story in which things are not what they seem (appropriate in a film about original vs. copy), and where, in the end, that distinction doesn’t matter.

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Ambiguity about “authenticity” has always been one of Abbas Kiarostami’s pet themes, something he has explored in film after film. Cinema is artificial. What you are looking at in a film is a representation of reality, not reality itself. He has had a lot of fun with that in his films over the years, most expressly in Close-Up, (1990) in which he investigates a real-life crime in Tehran, engaging the actual people who had been involved to appear in the film as themselves, Taste of Cherry (1997), where, in the last five minutes of this fictional story, Kiarostami shows the entire crew, including himself, filming the character’s car drive off out of sight, and Shirin (2008), the entirety of which is made up of long, lingering close-ups of women (including, from time to time, Juliette Binoche, the only non-Iranian in the film) watching a movie adaptation of a famous Persian epic poem. Kiarostami is an auteur of artifice. He is interested in the interplay between art and reality, and in engaging his audience on a level other than making them laugh or cry. He wants to remind them, as much as he can, that they are watching.

Kiarostami is famous for his long, meandering scenes inside moving cars. Kiarostami’s characters are always on the move. The entirety of Taste of Cherry takes place in a car, with shots outside the windshield showing the monotonous brown of the construction site outside Tehran. His characters are always pushing forward, yet often they travel in circles. James and She start off on their car trip to the country, and the camera is placed on the hood of the car, and their conversation (a long one) unfolds in one take, with Binoche really driving through those curvy streets. The buildings on both sides of the street roll up the windshield, blending with and passing over the faces of both, giving a strangely psychedelic effect. Where are they? Lost in their own minds and preconceived notions about the other, but trying to keep it casual, and trying to “see” the other.

It appears that the two people are strangers. They drive through Tuscany, the most clichéd of romantic-love-story landscapes, and talk, and there’s an edge to their conversation. She seems to be seeking something: affirmation of her own views, which he resists, gently and with (at first) good humor. There’s a museum with a famous forgery in it, something that had been thought to be an original for centuries, and she takes him there to show it to him. He is noticeably uninterested. This baffles her.

She is distracted by cell phone calls from her young son. The two sit in a café and have a coffee, and here is where the story starts to shift. Kiarostami films both of them head-on, the two actors looking directly into the camera, although ostensibly at each other. They talk about art, but things are starting to get intense. He talks about once seeing a woman and son in Florence, and watching their interactions from a distance: how the two never walked together, and how that struck him. Binoche replies, “Yes. I wasn’t well in those days.” The mystery deepens.

He takes a cell phone call and leaves the café for a bit, and in the interim, an elderly woman who owns the café says to Binoche, “He is a good husband.” Over the course of their interaction, Binoche does not enlighten her by revealing that they have just met. She begins to complain about him as a husband—how he is so obsessed with his work, that he doesn’t pay enough attention to her. When he returns, she enters that game completely with him, and, surprisingly, he starts to play along. Were they not strangers then? Is Kiarostami playing a trick? So is it a game they play as a couple?

Not surprisingly, Certified Copy is not interested in answering that question for certain. It doubles back on itself, with the “copies” of themselves (either the married couple, or the strangers) interacting with the authentic originals. They seem to be strangers again (“The café owner thought you were my husband, and I didn’t tell her differently”), but then, as they search for the pension where they spent their wedding night, things are reversed yet again.

James’ point in his book, which he remarks upon at length at the book signing—that it is the viewer who confers “value” upon a work of art, not the work of art itself—starts to resonate with every aspect of the film. Isn’t love saying, “I value you—you are an original to me”?

The sadness in Binoche’s beautiful face, as she stares into the camera at James (only we know she is really staring at the camera, another Kiarostami distancing-trick), has so much in it, and we are given space to contemplate what it might be that is making her so sad. She seems intent on making him cave on some of his philosophical points: Isn’t it better to see the original? Isn’t the original superior? He replies that there is no objective reality when it comes to art. And, it is implied, maybe when it comes to love.

Art is a collaboration between viewer and artist and love is a collaborative and creative act between two people. The fact that the film takes place in Tuscany is not a coincidence. How many love stories have been filmed in Tuscany? How many lovers in real life go to Tuscany to try to enter into those fictional love stories? In our world of images piling on images too quickly for us to process them all, where an original response to anything seems less and less likely, Kiarostami places his two characters, estranged man and wife, or strangers, in the clichéd landscape of love, knowing that we, in the audience, will collaborate with him and bring to it all of our personal associations.

In a busy town square, James and She get into an argument about the statue in the middle of the square. She likes it because the woman in the statue is resting her head on the man’s shoulder. He thinks that’s a terrible reason to like a piece of art. She becomes obsessed with proving to him that she is right, so she buttonholes a nearby couple and asks them to tell her what they think of the statue. The couple do their best, although realizing, slowly, that they are in the middle of some kind of private drama. Near the end of the conversation, the man pulls James aside and says, “Sir, I do not know you, but I have a bit of friendly advice for you. All she wants from you is that when you walk together, you put your hand on her shoulder. That’s all she wants.”

Once the other couple moves on their way, James and She walk off together, and slowly, almost tentatively, he reaches up and puts his hand on her shoulder. It is a tremendously moving moment, and for the life of me, I could not tell you why. The best part of it, though, is that just at the moment of physical contact, the two pass behind a tree, so that we miss the actual touch. We, out there, in the audience, have to imagine his hand coming to rest on her shoulder. We finish the gesture for him in our minds.

I walked out of the theatre into the broad light of day, and was lost in the dizzying-love-dream of Certified Copy for hours. The images and pictures and sounds unfurling through my head were, of course, just copies of something I had seen. Not originals at all. But still: what value.

Certified Copy opens Friday, March 11, in New York and Los Angeles.

Sheila O'Malley recently hosted an Iranian Film Blogathon on her personal site, with contributions from film critics across the web.