Chances are good that you’ll leave Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami’s cunning new romantic film, slightly puzzled. And that would be intentional. Certified Copy is one of those movies where, like Juliette Binoche’s divinely tousled hair, the confusion — the wayward curl — is the shape of the story.
Binoche plays an antiques dealer from France, living in Tuscany with her young son. She attends a lecture by James Miller, a British cultural critic, who is promoting his new book, Copie Conforme, which examines the idea of originality and authenticity in art and life, and whether reproductions are truly a lesser form. Binoche’s character, which remains unnamed throughout the film, deals in (surprise) authentic antiques and reproductions. She finds Copie Conforme intriguing, but is far more interested, even a bit obsessed, with the author. After she slips her phone number to James, the two arrange to meet on the pretense of his autographing for her a bag full of his new books.
They decide to spend the day together — a Sunday in Tuscany — and the movie takes place over those few, dialog-laden hours. Easily they move between French and English, switching languages often, and most poignantly when they feel they are not being heard. Binoche’s character is anxious, resentful, mischievous, beautiful, and lonely. James is an intellectual, stiff-hearted; he is discomfited by feelings, and will take loneliness over risk any day. While having a coffee, the two are mistaken for a married couple, and they begin the oddly intimate game of pretending they’re celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary. Or are they pretending? So convincing are they in their tenderness, anger, fear, and confusion that the viewer vacillates between wondering if this an authentic relationship, or if they are making it up.
The dialog and real-time framework will summon comparisons to “My Dinner With Andre,” which are apt. In one scene, the “couple” encounters some newlyweds. Binoche becomes girly and sentimental. James cuts her off, then becomes insistent.
James: I wish I could tell that couple that … the only thing that will keep love in their marriage is care — care and awareness.
Elle: Awareness of what?
James: That everything changes, and promises won’t stop that. You don’t expect a tree to promise to keep its blossoms. After spring is over, the blossoms turn to fruits, and then the tree loses its fruits.
Elle: And then?
James: And then The Garden of Leaflessness.
Elle: The Garden of Leaflessness?
James: (It’s from) a Persian poem. “The Garden of Leaflessness, who dares say it is not beautiful?”
Certified Copy is Kiarostami’s first film outside of his native Iran, and while a departure from his previous works, it carries his trademark poetic storytelling, and the layering of images and ideas. While Binoche and the character James Miller marvel at their “marriage”, or lament it, or decry it, scenes out of windows, or reflections in mirrors, as well as sounds off-camera, underline or challenge the dialog. Binoche won the Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in Certified Copy; James, played by the lauded baritone William Shimell, renders the distant man with precision. The characters are people we know, bits and pieces even of ourselves, and the film leads us to the idea that failed art and failed relationships have much in common. This is not a film for everyone, but if you’ve read this far, you should see it.