'Certified Copy' opens with a shot of a book propped up on a table with two microphones and two glasses of water, ready for a guest lecturer to come discuss his latest work. The book, which the movie is named for, shows two Grecian-style statues staring at each other sightlessly. It is about how art reproductions create their own worth, according to the author's theory, by leading us to their original. These fakes are themselves certified, in their own way, as originals.
Later, this author, James Miller (William Shimell), meets a woman from the audience, Elle (merely "she" in French, as played by Juliette Binoche), in her antiques shop for a coffee date. What was at first an awkward sort of meeting between strangers, with Elle ducking her head and offering him a tour of her shop, slowly becomes antagonistic as they discuss his theories. It's confusing and discomfiting, and stranger still, these discussions suddenly dive dizzyingly into personal territory. James and Elle slip into a familiar patter easily recognizable by anyone who's ever been in a long-term relationship as they travel to a small village in Tuscany before James has to catch his train. This limbo is where 'Certified Copy' lives. Only by going back and examining the clues James and Elle have left like breadcrumbs can we determine their true relationship to each other. They bicker like a long-time couple, and others around them assume they're together; in some scenes, Elle even pretends that they are together. Most of the time they talk to each other, almost straight at the camera but not quite. They are aiming for something, but not necessarily the other person. They're seeking a deeper understanding of who they are and where they stand in a world full of copies, and where, if at all, they can find fulfillment among them. In the end, it doesn't matter if Elle and James were strangers playacting their own dissatisfactions with life and love or if they really are a couple.
Abbas Kiarostami's exquisitely layered script and direction plays with us and with these ideas at length. On the surface, 'Certified Copy' is a love story, although not necessarily one about James and Elle. Dig deeper and it's a much bigger treatise on the theories in James Miller's books, not just in art but on life itself. During the day, fakes and originals, copies and doubles, spill around them in their own secret language. Kiarostami slips in shots of other reproductions, such as in one memorable and beautifully shot scene of brides and grooms lining up to have their photos taken with a golden tree for luck on their wedding day. Earlier, as Elle drives, the world they pass through is reflected on the glass on the front window of the car, superimposed over their faces.
The characters Kiarostami has created and the way he films them is, in a word, gorgeous. The elegant scenes written and directed by Kiarostami have stayed with me for days. Although Shimell gives a strong performance as his half of the duo, it's Binoche's face and mannerisms as Elle that linger in my mind. Her face is completely open as she slips from anger to melancholy, and even vulnerability. She sits wearily on a stoop and kicks off her shoes and admits she's taken off her bra as one might around a long-time lover. She convinces the owner of a small bed and breakfast to allow them to see the room they stayed in during their anniversary and nestles into the pillow as if she can still smell him from all those years ago. It's no wonder that she won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this performance. (Her deft response to Depardieu's petty comments about her should win an award as well.)
Kiarostami's earlier film 'Close-Up,' which touches on the fact-or-fiction nature of documentary filmmaking, is a progenitor of such current documentaries like 'Catfish' and 'I'm Still Here.' 'Certified Copy' continues the director's interest in exploring the line between fact and fiction in life and in film, and it's a far more elegant treatise on these theories than any elaborate prank could be. It's also a beautiful love story in its own marvelous way.