Be careful if you prefer your movies wrapped up in a pleasant little bow with an obvious beginning, middle, end, and with all questions and conflicts answered and sorted out. Certified Copy raises hundreds of absorbing and metaphysical questions, none of which will be answered for you at the end. In fact, the audience is cerebrally supposed to do the heavy lifting here. If you see this with your significant other or a friend, plan on dedicating the hour post film to declaring and defending your arguments on who the couple is, where they are in their relationship, and what is the truth.
Writer/director Abbas Kiarostami is not teasing his audience as some viewers might accuse him; rather, he is challenging them. If you do not want to work in your movie going experience, go to your local multiplex and watch the latest forgettable wide release. However, if you are intrigued by piecing together intellectual puzzle pieces, Certified Copy will give you as much of a contest of wits as the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. From the setup, however, there are no signs at all that this film will be anything other than a modern, romantic European dialogue driven movie. This is Before Sunrise in a small Tuscan village with middle-aged characters instead of Vienna seen through the eyes of naive early-20s backpackers.
The man, James Miller (William Shimell), is on a book tour in Italy because unexpectedly, his work has become quite popular with Italians, even more popular than in his native England. His premise concerns original art versus its copies. Why are originals valued and exalted more than copies which may be even better than the original it was forged from? Furthermore, why does having the knowledge of whether or not a piece of art is actually the original change the viewer’s perception of it? Is it not just as beautiful?
The unnamed woman (Juliette Binoche), goes to see James lecture about his book, buys six copies, and leaves her phone number and address with his friend because she is obviously smitten. She runs an antique shop which she uses as her pretense of getting him to visit her and then since it such a nice day outside, they take off in her car to another picturesque village. They spend the rest of the day chatting, arguing, walking, drinking, and introducing enough questions and plausible alternatives for the meanings of their conversations to make the audiences’ minds spin.
Did James and the woman meet for the first time today? Well, they shake hands, introduce themselves, and ask about each other’s lives. On the other hand, after an elderly trattoria barista mistakes them for a married couple, they begin to act like it and their conversation shifts. Are they playing a game or have they really been married for 15 years? She complains that he fell asleep last night on their 15th wedding anniversary because he no longer loves her. He counters that he was just tired and brings up/invents a time she fell asleep at the wheel with her son in the backseat because she was tired, not because she did not love him.
That is just an example of the philosophical back and forth which covers the second half of Certified Copy. During one second, I was sure they were married, but immediately after, I was second guessing and was just as sure they were play acting. The two characters reacting to each other’s verbal barbs are the main cues I was looking for. James is cold, mostly stoic, and becomes angry at small inconveniences. She feels much deeper; at least she lets it show on her face, is on the verge of crying frequently, and is upset at his prolonged absences from their marriage. Perhaps James is just a stand-in for her real husband? Binoche deservedly won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her ability to either convince the audience these two people just met or convince them that they have known each other for decades.
I urge you to take the Certified Copy challenge. There are some pauses and waits during particular scenes but instead of growing impatient, use them to your advantage to try and make sense of what is happening so later on you can present and defend your arguments. Just like the lady and James did.