Certified Copy: The Quest For the Real

By DDR | Their Bated Breath | The Fade Out
“Certified Copy” by Abbas Kiarostami
IFC Films
(This film appears on Criterion’s channel, Filmstruck, today with supplements.)

Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy” is about life and art, truth and fiction, change and stagnation, love and marriage. The film calls into question the value of things. It’s an age-old question that has been asked by many artists. What is real and how do we determine its value? Plato asked which is stronger, perception or reason? Writer Don DeLillo in his novel, “White Noise”, says that the viewer of an object gives a thing its value. Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story, echoing French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the ‘simulacrum’, about a map so big it actually covers the earth it purports to be a map of — and so the copy becomes the original and we may never tell the difference.

“Certified Copy” is a riff, or a talk-film about what it means to love. It’s about how two people can look at the same object and see it in drastically different ways. (Including the film itself.) It maintains a high-minded level of conversation like Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre” (1981) meets the contemplative repetition of Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961). But it’s also more basic than those two films. “Certified Copy” begins with actor William Shimell playing an English author named James Miller, who is promoting his new book of art criticism, “Certified Copy”, while in Tuscany. The always stunning Juliette Binoche plays a woman who runs an antique gallery. (The character is never named, but referred to as “She” only.) She walks into the room and sits in the front row as the author makes his introduction to the group. She fidgets, makes hand signals to a young boy we assume to be her son, who stands against a wall waiting impatiently as his mother listens to the speaker. She leaves her phone number with the author’s book translator, in the hopes of being able to talk with him, and have him sign six copies of his book.

They meet and eventually agree to drive to the picturesque town of Lucignano. This is where the film really begins. (Or is it?) They discuss the nature of art and how fake jewelry can be better than the original. Elle tells the story of her sister and her sister’s husband. Her sister’s name is Maria, but her husband stammers her name when he speaks so it becomes, “M-M-M Maria.” Elle says that the husband’s stammering isn’t imperfect speech to her sister, but rather a love song. (Note how perception is of two minds even in contemplating a stammer.) This dialogue continues at full throttle, like the car blurring down the country roads. The two share their concepts of original art. He shares his love of cypress trees, describing them elegantly as they drive by them. She mentions Jasper John’s “Coca-Cola and Grid”. James adds his thoughts about Andy Warhol’s famed Coca-Cola paintings: “You take an ordinary object and you put it in a museum and you change the way people look at it. It’s not the object that matters, it’s your perception of it.”

But the film is far from didactic. There’s a certain fluidity to the dialogue that keeps it from becoming a simple actor’s exercise or the hollow shell of a story used as a vehicle for philosophical digressions. And much of that has to do with Binoche’s ability to charm and hypnotize with her facial expressions. She’s an enormously gifted actress. One of the best of our age. And isn’t great acting, in reality, the ability to pretend as if one isn’t acting at all? Their car ride begs a number of questions: Does truth really exist in acting, or even in film? Or is it about the perception of the viewer? It’s a strange and wonderful world that finds beauty in the false presentation of a person pretending not to be acting. The more real the acting, the more authentic, believable and respectable the film, right? And how much of Binoche’s acting is really just the actress being herself? Or is it all false, because everything about film is a lie? Ultimately, we’re never even sure we can pin down the relationship between Binoche’s character and James.

The characters are in a constant state of motion. They propel onward, talking as the car drives on, which is a favorite and common mode of storytelling in Kiarostami films. The characters walk and talk. They eat and talk. They move in and out of restaurants, cafes, museums, hotel rooms. It’s all forward motion. The nature of the relationship between Binoche’s character and James is left ambiguous at this point. When the two arrive at Lucignano, they walk through an old museum, where she shows the author a “real copy” of a painting. (Presumably the objective of the drive.) She tells him, “It’s like a Giaconda. They just found out it was a copy 50 years ago. They thought it was an original for many many centuries.” They continue to talk, delving into topics of pleasure, enjoyment and consequences. He appears disinterested in the painting, saying it’s “interesting enough” but the “real original” is the woman in the painting. He seems to suggest there are no originals of anything. Even humans beings are a replication of the DNA of their ancestors.

They sit for a coffee and the author begins to tell a story about seeing a woman and little boy in Florence. He says the mother would walk quite a ways in front of the boy, but never leaving him behind. The boy would amble at his own pace, well behind the mother, but never make an effort to keep up. They walk equidistant to each other. And it’s here we begin to feel there is a deeper connection between James and this woman. The story has shifted. Has Kiarostami shifted the relationship mid-film? The story James tells begins as any tale, but quickly turns emotional, with a meaning we’re only partially understanding. The camera shifts. Our point-of-view is directly across from Binoche. A close-up of her face. James says he was inspired to write his book about art after eavesdropping on the conversation between the mother and son while they were standing in the Galleria degli Uffizi looking at the statue of David. The author says, “The boy told the mother, you know the statue is only a copy. The original is in the Academia.” Her eyes begin to water before she says, “I wasn’t well in those days.”

The shopkeeper comes back, mistaking the two for husband and wife. The two play as if they are, and the artifice becomes a beautiful and graceful fiction of humor and charm. Or is it fiction? The story gets more complicated as they leave the cafe. Are they really husband and wife? Are they former lovers? Or are they just continuing the role playing that began in the cafe? Lucignano is a town where people go to get married. The two run into a wedding party and ‘pretend’ further. “Certified Copy” asks the question, is there no immutable truth in art or life? Perhaps the answer lies in one of the film’s later delicate moments: The woman and James talk to a married couple about a sculpture. The man takes the author aside and tells him a simple gesture, like a touch, can make right of all wrongs. Something done simply and gracefully, without artifice or the burden of intellectual contemplation can change everything. They walk into a restaurant, a wedding party celebrates outside, and everything becomes clearer as the movie reaches a majestic and bittersweet revelation. Then the question becomes: What happens when what was once real between two people, becomes replaced with a copy of what was?

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