This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
In Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, his first film shot outside of his native Iran, a middle-aged couple named James and, simply, “She” (William Shimell and Juliette Binoche) drive around the beautiful landscape of Tuscany. They talk about art, they talk about wine. They talk about the act of “seeing”: how do we perceive things? Seeing is subjective, is it not? An ugly man is a prince to the woman who loves him. They stop off at a museum, they stop off at a restaurant. Works of art surround their journey. This is Italy, after all. James has just written a book called Certified Copy, a study of originality in art: If the copy generates a response in you, then doesn’t that “certify” the copy’s value? Do you have to go to the Louvre to experience the Mona Lisa? Can’t one perceive its importance and emotion in a copy? What’s the difference? The art purists would rise in outrage, but James is not so sure. Binoche’s unnamed character is an art dealer, with an underground shop full of exquisite forgeries. She shows up at one of James’ book signings in the first scene, and wants to talk to him more. They end up driving out to the country together in her car.
What follows is a dizzying doubling-back reflective story (count the mirrors!), where things are not what they seem (appropriate in a film about original vs. copy), and where, in the end, the distinction doesn’t matter.
The ambiguity surrounding “authenticity” has always been one of Abbas Kiarostami’s pet themes, something he has explored in film after film. Cinema is artificial. What you are looking at in a film is a representation of reality, not reality itself.He has had a lot of fun with this in his films over the years, most expressly in Close-Up where he investigates a real-life crime in Tehran, engaging the actual people involved to appear in the film as themselves. Then there’s Taste of Cherry, where, in the last five minutes of this fictional story, Kiarostami pulls back to reveal the entire film crew, including himself, filming the character’s car drive out of sight. There’s Shirin, the entirety of which is made up of long lingering closeups of women watching a movie adaptation of a famous Persian epic poem. Kiarostami is an auteur of artifice. He is interested in the interplay between art and reality, and in engaging his audience on a level other than making them laugh or cry. He wants to remind them, as much as he can, that they are watching.
Kiarostami is famous for his long meandering scenes inside moving cars. His characters are always on the move. The entirety of Taste of Cherry takes place inside a car, with shots outside the windshield showing the monotonous brown of the construction site outside Tehran. His characters are always pushing forward, yet often they travel in circles. There is a search in their movement, often unspoken, but there, inherently, in the movement itself.
James and She start off on their car trip to the country, and the camera is placed on the hood of the car, and their conversation (a long one) unfolds in one take, with Binoche really driving through those curvy streets. The buildings on both sides of the street roll up over the windshield, blending with and passing over the faces of both, giving a strangely psychedelic effect. Where are they? Lost in their own minds and preconceived notions about the other, but trying to “see” the other.
At first, it appears the two people are strangers. They drive through Tuscany, the most clichéd of romantic-love-story landscapes, they talk, and there’s an edge to their conversation. She is seeking something: affirmation of her own views, which he resists, gently and with (at first) good humor. There’s a museum nearby with a famous forgery in it, something belived to be an original for centuries. She takes him there to show it to him. He is noticeably uninterested. This baffles her. Throughout, she is distracted by cell phone calls from her young son.
The two sit in a café and have a coffee. Here is where the story starts to shift. Kiarostami films both of them head-on, the two actors looking directly into the camera, although ostensibly at each other. They talk about art, but things are getting intense. He talks about once seeing a woman and son in Florence, and watching their interactions from a distance, how the two never walked together, and how that struck him. Binoche replies, “Yes. I wasn’t well in those days.” The mystery deepens. He takes a phone call and leaves the café for a bit, and in the interim, the elderly woman who owns the café says to Binoche, “He is a good husband.” Over the course of their interaction, Binoche does not enlighten her that they have just met. She begins to complain about him as a husband, how he is so obsessed with his work, he doesn’t pay enough attention to her. When he returns, she enters the game completely with him, and, surprisingly, he starts to play along.
Were they not strangers then? Is Kiarostami playing a trick? So is it a game they play as a couple?
Not surprisingly, Certified Copy is not interested in answering these questions. It remains in a tailspinning spiral in the middle, with the “copies” of themselves (either the married couple, or the strangers) interacting with the authentic originals. They double back. They seem to be strangers again (“The café owner thought you were my husband, and I didn’t tell her differently”), but then, as they search for the pension where they spent their wedding night, things double-back yet again.
James makes the point in his book, which he remarks upon at length at the book signing, that it is the viewer who confers “value” upon a work of art, not the work of art itself. These words start resonating on a primal interpersonal level. Isn’t love saying, “I value you. You are an original to me.”? Others may not see the value, but the opinion of others does not confer value. Love makes us original to one another. The sadness in Binoche’s beautiful face, as she stares into the camera at James (only, to add another layer to it, we know she is really staring at the camera, another Kiarostami distancing-trick), has so much in it, and we are given space to contemplate what is making her so sad. She is intent on making him cave on some of his philosophical points: Isn’t it better to see the original? Isn’t the original superior? He replies that there is no objective reality when it comes to art.
And love, too?
In a bustling little town, James and She get into an argument about the statue in the middle of the square. She likes it because the woman in the statue is resting her head on the man’s shoulder. He thinks this is a terrible reason to like a piece of art. She is obsessed with proving to him she is right, so she buttonholes a nearby couple and asks them to tell her what they think of the statue. The couple does their best, while realizing, slowly, they are in the middle of some kind of private drama. Near the end of the conversation, the man pulls James aside and says, “Sir, I do not know you, but I have a bit of friendly advice for you. All she wants from you is that when you walk together, you put your hand on her shoulder. That’s all she wants.”
Once the other couple moves on their way, James and She walk off together, and slowly, tentatively, he reaches up and puts his hand on her shoulder. It is a tremendously moving moment, and for the life of me, I could not tell you why. Or I could try to tell you why, but something would be lost in translation. The best part of it is that just at the moment of physical contact, the two pass behind a tree, so we miss seeing the actual touch. We, out here in the audience finish the gesture for him in our minds.
Art is a collaboration between viewer and artist and love is a collaborative and creative act between two people. The fact that the film takes place in Tuscany is not a coincidence. How many love stories have been filmed in Tuscany? How many lovers in real life go to Tuscany to try to enter into fictional love stories? In our world of images piling on images too quickly for us to process them all, where an original response to anything seems less and less likely, Kiarostami places his two characters, estranged man and wife, or total strangers, in the clichéd landscape of love, knowing that we, in the audience, will collaborate with him and bring to it all of our personal associations.
Certified Copy is a hugely generous film in that respect, not only generous to the two lead actors, who are both amazing, but to us out there watching in the dark. I walked out of the theatre into the broad light of day, and was lost in the dizzy-dream of Certified Copy for hours. The images and pictures and sounds unfurling through my head were, of course, just copies of something I had seen. Not originals at all. But still: what value.