Certified Copy, which opens on a lecture consigning the concept of originality in art to the Academy of the Overrated, is an awesomely playful intellectual romance (or is it a farce?) from the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. When I say playful, I mean confounding in the manner of Last Year at Marienbad, which basically dared viewers to say which competing, contradictory story threads represented real events in the film’s world. I mean bewildering in the style of Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, which had two different actresses playing a single character. And when I say that, what I really mean is that it’s a bracingly reflexive exercise that flouts basic rules of narrative cinema and manages to come out ahead of the game.
The man lecturing on the idea that a skillful copy (or forgery) has, as long as it instills the same feelings in its viewers, the same intrinsic artistic value as an original, is James Miller (William Shimell), an English author visiting Italy to promote his new book, which is itself titled (the copies we see are in Italian) Certified Copy. As he speaks, an unnamed woman (Juliette Binoche) takes a reserved seat in the front row. Her arrival is followed, some moments later, by a boy sporting a shock of jet black hair that calls to mind Binoche’s own unruly mop — offspring, then. (Another copy!) In a later scene, the mother-and-child relationship is both warm and combative. He teases her about her desire to fall in love with the visiting English author, and about the multiple copies of his books that she has purchased.
Through circumstances that are never fully explained, the author comes to meet Binoche’s character in a basement shop that she seems to keep, which is full of curios and antiques. She suggests a cup of tea inside, but he objects, describing the beautiful weather outside. And so Certified Copy turns briefly into a road movie, the two driving through beautiful Tuscan scenery en route to a nearby village that, she promises, he will find fascinating. As they drive, they banter. Eventually the writer confides to the woman that he’s not quite sure of his own thesis and wrote the book in part to convince himself. (Here is one of the tiny intellectual dramas suggested by the film’s title and its opening gambit: With the book’s argument exposed as inauthentic, what of the authenticity that the author’s signature is understood to attest? Does that make a signed hardcover into a kind of forgery?)
The rest of the film comprises a series of masterful vignettes that stack up and accrue meaning as she gives the man a whirlwind tour of a quaint town. They stop at a museum where a well-known forgery is hung and preserved with the same level of care that would be afforded the original. They stop at a church where a wedding is taking place and are wangled into taking a photograph with the happy couple after he is mistaken for her husband. They stop for coffee and, after he steps outside the café to take a phone call, the café’s proprietor mistakes him for her husband. She plays along, fabulating a cozy home life for the two of them as the idea of marriage becomes crucial to the film. (In a moment fraught with magic, the old woman whispers something to Binoche that the audience is not permitted to hear.)
This is where the narrative takes its funny turn. Binoche continues to play let’s-pretend-we’re-married, chatting to Shimmel about various details of their life together. Shimmel seems content to humor her. And then, to Shimmel’s obvious confusion, the world starts to shift under his feet. Who knows why he plays the game at first? This woman may be his intellectual equal, and it’s possible he enjoys the oddness of her intentions while maintaining a certain stiff propriety and distance. But as the story progresses, so does their banter, shifting from abstract theoretical ideas to subjects that are more pregnant with meaning — the comfort of life lived with another person, the constancy of five-o-clock shadow, and, whoops, I just removed my bra in that church. (Wouldn’t you like to visit a nearby hotel room with me?)
In this movie, Shimmel portrays the author, but Binoche is the storyteller, and that makes her the ultimate seductress. It’s not clear as the two of them begin conversing early in the film, but the process has already begun. She is a force of nature, and she changes the very history and reality of his character through an act of storytelling. Early in the film, when she triumphantly shows him that forged painting, declaring that it’s essentially his book hanging on a wall, he deflates her by harping on his idea that everything is a copy and nothing is authentic. The woman in the painting, then, is but a reproduction of something imagined by an artist who made the effort of staging it in reality in order to capture it in an enduring format, and the Mona Lisa’s famous smile is nothing more than a reflection of something that existed inside Leonardo’s head. His argument is revealed less as a defense of the artful copy than as an attack on the notion that art itself is ever anything particularly special. (I thought I detected an inside joke when Shimmel’s character found it necessary, twice, to comment on the lovely view of the Tuscan countryside he was afforded from the woman’s car; this banal observation from the mouth of an art critic coming in a film by a director whose every review once lauded his skill at depicting landscapes, as though he had great value was as a Middle Eastern gloss on Ansel Adams.)
It’s fitting, then, that Shimmel’s character should find himself undermined and transformed at the behest of another character in the film. He becomes a copy of himself, a Xerox willed into existence by Binoche’s insistent imagination in the same way that the Mona Lisa’s smile was art-directed into being. She is something to behold, inhabiting the frame with a sensual confidence that would do Garbo proud, a dragonfly pendant hanging against her chest and an arsenal of lipstick and jewelry at her disposal when the situation calls for an especially brave face. Her character is in some way the artist’s surrogate on screen, and that makes her a very powerful woman.
Kiarostami has suggested as much all along. I had avoided reading about the film and thus didn’t know what he was up to during its first half, but it was clear that, in those early scenes where Shimmel is allowed to go on and on about his book’s subject, he was already dropping some serious hints about his film’s reflexivity. (I was delighted, incidentally, to see the name of Jean-Claude Carriére in the film’s closing titles — he was Bunuel’s screenwriter for many years, and his small role in this film is a deserved encomium.) A piece of film, after all, is nothing but a print — a copy made from an internegative that was struck from an interpositive that is itself a copy of the camera negative. Kiarostami heightens the sensation of self-awareness by shooting Shimell and Binoche head-on in a key scene in a restaurant They seem to be staring directly out of the screen and at the audience as they speak, which is a spooky sensation but appropriate for a film that’s coming unmoored. Kiarostami makes a lot out of windows, and panes of glass, which are metaphors for movie screens and camera lenses, suggesting the power of the imagination — the way a character’s internal life may be powerful enough that it has the capacity to change a film’s reality. And, again and again, Kiarostami puts Shimmel inside frames — most conspicuously in the museum, as he gazes upon the fake painting. the two of them move to the other side of the room, and Binoche stays in clear view of the camera’s lens but he moves behind a cabinet full of artifacts so that we see him only through glass – not quite a reflection of himself, but definitely a refraction, and a kind of visual copy. He’s also forever looking through windows, which again place him in a frame within a frame. The history of film may be defined by the male gaze, but in Certified Copy, the man is the object of desire.
By the film’s gentle final scenes, their relationship is clearly continuing to evolve and seems in danger of collapsing entirely. Somehow, he still manages to remember that 9 p.m. train he means to catch. And yet she keeps romancing him, imploring him to stay, with paeans to their life together. The film closes with a shot of his face, inviting us to consider what must be going on behind his baffled eyes. He’s framed again inside a window, and once he steps out of that frame, the film’s credits start to roll — but only within that window, not from frame-edge to frame-edge. It’s a final, explicit acknowledgment of the film’s meta layers. This is one of the great films about film, a master class in performance and character and narrative, and I’ve barely touched on Kiarostami’s astonishing skills at composing breathtaking images within the frame. He is great at landscape, it’s true, but what’s remarkable about his vision is that it makes the absolute most of any space it’s in, forever expanding the very idea of a landscape.
What’s more, as a film about marriage, Certified Copy turns out to be vital and touching and profound — and it’s more or less peerless in taking such a rigorous approach to a subject fraught with dangerous sentiment. Sometimes wrapping a story in this kind of gamesmanship feels like an artist’s indulgence that obscures the work’s heart and soul in the ephemeral haze generated by the cerebellum. But here, in Kiarostami’s case, it’s an act of generosity. By calling attention to artifice — and this is perhaps a paradox, but a stunning one — he creates an ever richer cinematic world for the audience to inhabit.