Finally gracing British shores after cooking up some sizable buzz at Cannes is this intriguing piece from Iranian arthouse superstar, Abbas Kiarostami. His first feature-length fiction since the Palme d’Or nominated Ten back in 2002, Certified Copy stars Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, in what is a subtly experimental take on erudite romance.
From watching the film’s trailer, you would be forgiven for expecting a Mediterranean love story, with Binoche as a French art dealer who whisks away a smarmy British author, James Miller (Shimell), on a tour around balmy, sun-kissed rural Tuscany.
This isn’t entirely true, as it soon develops into what, at first, seems to be a middle-aged spin on Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise / Before Sunset. She is giddy and he is distant, but their conversation blooms as they talk about Miller’s latest book, a treatise on art and authenticity. He offers a broadside on the objective qualities of great works, and the book’s implications trouble her. It asks: is there such thing as inherent value in a culture of mass production? What makes something genuine? Who decides? And besides, is the term ‘original’, as a marker of quality, irrelevant?
Miller and his guide chat back and forth, with Kiarostami’s dense, yet aphoristic script winding its way through various topics such as mortality, wine-tasting and parenting. There is something comfortable in their conversation, as the car glides across country lanes, the camera trading between static close shots of the actors and languid views of the landscape.
They eventually stop at a small town and visit a gallery, which houses a beautiful, famous forgery. But as they argue over its merits, there are hints of further faking at play.
For Kiarostami soon introduces a subtle twist to the proceedings. A cafe owner, seeing the couple together, idly assumes they are husband and wife. The woman doesn’t correct her, but this warps the situation completely. In fact, are they married? And as Miller is further led through the town, and is introduced to their church where they were supposedly wed, the viewer wonders, is this a game?
The cinema has an innate ability to show us the surreal. We know this. CGI, animation and good old in-camera trickery has presented us with impossible worlds and uncanny beings. Cinematic realism has become a stylistic quirk, something to make war movies and horror flicks more compelling. But what about the real world?
Kiarostami unravels Certified Copy as a piece of ambiguous realism, a Pinteresque exploration of meaning and observation. This isn’t as overt as Orson Welles’ F For Fake, but here we have a film that subtly, yet effectively exposes the medium’s capacity for unreliable narration. As a viewer, this is an unsettling experience, as the layers of denotation and connotation blur, but it is as powerful as it is dislocating.
Certified Copy is an enigma. It has complexity that the likes of Christopher Nolan dream about, full of humanity, and lacking in gimmicks. It is, after all, two people talking. The camera remains fixed, sometimes in almost direct-address close-up, on both actors, who equip themselves well across the film’s three languages and myriad emotional undertones.
Binoche won Best Actress at Cannes for her role, and it’s hard to disagree, as she shifts with minute grace under the gaze from nervous companion to tortured lover and beyond. Shimell, an opera singer by trade, brings an arch theatricality to his role, making Miller sit comfortably as both a pompous author and a withdrawn husband.
The audience must ascribe meaning to their relationship, just like the eavesdroppers and passers-by on their travels. The film itself fails to commit, or satisfy, something that won’t ingratiate this intelligent, if wordy two-hander to the mainstream cinemagoer.
Certified Copy offers no answers, no objective truths or epiphanic twists. Even Kiarostami himself has said he has no definitive interpretation. We must deal with it. Like in real life. Or a copy of it, at least.