Quick note before talking about Certified Copy: I’ll be posting some reviews on Sound on Sight. They’ll be more straight-forward “reviews” as opposed to the meandering digressions on here. Check it out. I just wrote on Sautet’s The Things of Life: http://www.soundonsight.org/
Certified Copy is a great film. It’s one that asks the same question throughout: “Can a facsimile of something (art, literature, a person) be the same or the equivalent of the original?” It’s sub-question/theme: “Can you give something value or meaning by looking at it?”
The film opens with a promotional conference for English author James Miller’s (William Shimell) new book, appropriately titled Certified Copy. James’ answers to both of the above questions: yes.
The narrative of Certified Copy is, as with many Abbas Kiarostami films, wandering. It takes on the form, also as with many Kiarostami films, of a road-movie of sorts. Even a take on the traditional buddy film.
James’ buddy in this case is Elle (Juliette Binoche). Is there a more accomplished living actress than Binoche? I’d put Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve and Meryl Streep in a similar class. Binoche is phenomenal in this film as the unstable woman who decides to use James to reinvent and reclassify her situation with her own husband.
The story, therefore, is this: James and Elle take to the road. They’ve just met. She’s pursued him. She claims to dislike his book. They drive somewhat aimlessly, talking about his book, various works of art, the people they meet, and, most of all, her personal life.
As their journey progresses their play-acting becomes more pronounced and also more mutual, with James suddenly, and unexpectedly joining in. Herein is my lone problem with the film. James, up to the mid-point of the movie has played the part of somewhat begrudging, but ultimately accepting participant. He seems to understand that Elle has some weight on her shoulders, and he allows her to berate him with her problems, pretending that she is his husband. James’ switch to complicit partner in the ruse is too fast. It comes amidst a beautiful scene in a restaurant, but the beat is false and William Shimell is not enough of an actor to pull it off.
That aside, the film is virtually flawless. As their conversation becomes progressively more intimate, it becomes clear that the final intimation will be: can James, the copy, be certified as original and replace Elle’s absent husband? Perhaps more important than this is James’ own ethics. Will he, writer of the book, acceptor of fakes, willingly play the part of pseudo-husband in order to fulfill his own theory and not stray from his own beliefs? Will he, in essence, “play” the husband while “being” adulterous?
Kiarostami fills his frame with some visual tricks to echo his themes, the most obvious of which is the omnipresence of mirrors. One particular moment is rather playful in its camera position. James and Elle are mid-argument in a town square. She storms away from him and James notices a man and woman arguing opposite him. The man has his back to James. The man is yelling very loudly. Kiarostami’s camera is placed as to be close to, but perhaps not exactly aligned with James’ point-of-view. As James watches, the man and woman begin to walk away together and it becomes clear that the man has been yelling on his phone and not at the woman.
Is this James’ willing perspective, endowing an innocent scene with the same characteristics he and Elle face? Is this Kiarostami’s camera, and not James’ point-of-view at all, with the director leading us into a false sense of reality? Does the fact that the argument has been revealed to be false make its first moment, when it appeared to be real, any less real?
Kiarostami utilizes a startlingly consistent technique of center-framing. Elle and James are very nearly always in the exact middle of the frame, looking just barely off-camera. The lack of negative or leading space, as is common in most film conversations, has two effects. First, it puts their eyeline just close enough to the camera as to almost look at the audience, shrinking that fourth wall. Second, it intentionally de-emphasizes the background so when, as in the breathtaking final shot, the background suddenly does become the focus, we are left with an overwhelming sense of emptiness.
That final shot…there’s a lot I’d like to write about it – the moral dilemmas it implies, the sadness it conveys, the changes it exacts, the problems it raises, the perfection of its pacing – but I’d rather not ruin it.
Strangely enough, Certified Copy is a detective story where everyone is the detective – Elle, James, Kiarostami and the audience. It’s such a puzzling, entrancing mystery and one of Kiarostami’s finest.