Certified Copy August 8, 2018
1 Hr., 46 Mins.
All her life, the unnamed woman’s sister has ascribed to the belief that there is little difference between an original and its copy. It's how someone perceives an object that counts. If you were to wear a plastic diamond ring but nonetheless felt as glamorous and moneyed as someone who could afford the real thing, why should it matter if the rock on your finger was purchased at a drug store and not a downtown Tiffany & Co.?
James, a writer and art historian, has recently published a piece of pedantic academia. It is called "Certified Copy," and it explores the complicated connection between originality and impersonation. Is it really true that one’s perception of an article is more relevant than its validity? James, after some investigation, has deduced that maybe legitimacy is significant; perception might be pivotal, but, in the grand scheme of things, it might be a form of self-deception if the item being admired is, at its core, phony. He resents his weariness, though: how nice it would be to have even an ounce of the unnamed woman’s sister’s optimism.
The movie in which James is the male lead is also called Certified Copy. James is played by the English baritone William Shimell; his co-star is Juliette Binoche, who portrays the aforementioned unnamed woman. The film, like the scholarly product at its center, also considers the relationship between duplication and authenticity. James is in Tuscany to promote his book. The unnamed woman — whom I will refer to as “Elle,” like the closing credits do — is an antiques dealer. Elle attends James’ speaking engagement as the film opens, but her 11-year-old son, who complains of hunger, forces her to leave the event early. This won’t do. Elle has purchased a number of copies of James’ book in the name of reselling and needs the author to sign them. She leaves her number with James’ translator.
Later, James meets Elle at her shop downtown, which is located in a dank basement. She and James get to talking, and they get along. Elle, ever-considerate, offers to show James around Tuscany. It might be fun: she has a car; there are a few hotspots she thinks the historian might like to see. He can sign Elle’s copies as they travel from site to site. Not having anything else to do, James agrees to the impromptu trip with this stranger. As the day progresses, the duo visits museums, cafés; there are a couple of run-ins with friendly strangers. The conversation doesn’t flow too easily after a while, though: there is an agitation outlining each exchange. James is prone to going off on affected tangents that either turn off or offend the more pragmatic and sensitive Elle. Noticeable, too, is that the relationship between the strangers is ever-shifting. After stopping at a bistro, the joint’s owner mistakes James and Elle for a couple, and chats with the latter about the state of the relationship when James steps outside to take a call. Instead of politely telling the eatery’s owner that she is mistaken, Elle goes along with it, pretending as if she and her partner for the day have been long-married.
Then our leads begin behaving like they actually are married. By the end of the feature, it seems established that they wed 15 years ago, and that today is their anniversary. A climactic spat in a restaurant tells us that their union might be on the rocks. Certified Copy’s writer and director, Abbas Kiarostami, is undoubtedly toying with us, gleefully blurring the lines between the real and the fabricated. Which relationship is real?, we wonder. Were James and Elle married from the beginning, with the antiques-dealer-meets-an-author storyline merely a game of roleplaying? Or are we witnessing an unacknowledged time jump, with the first act revolving around the dyad’s meet-cute and the rest of the film serving as a looking ahead into their lives after they made their relationship the real deal?
I’m partial to believing that neither theory is exactly correct. I think that Kiarostami, rather mischievously, is plainly commenting on the fraudulent nature of cinema. So often do we see cohesive stories told in the span of a couple of hours; a plot twist might come about. But even then, an unexpected development is portrayed with some commonsensicality. What might happen, then, if partway through a movie, the person behind the camera decided to start telling a new story, without picking up the pieces of the previous one? Certified Copy evinces an idea that changing the course of a movie’s reality in this abnormal a fashion isn’t as peculiar as it might at first seem. Every time we watch a movie, we're allowing ourselves to be coerced into thinking and feeling a certain way. What’s so different about a twist as mysterious, and hard to pinpoint, as the one which underscores Certified Copy? It’s but another manipulation.
In Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, a dark comedy released in 1977, a single heroine is played by two actresses, who take turns playing her on a scene-to-scene basis. There is no explanation for this. Buñuel is simply exploiting the fact that, as the filmmaker, he can, so long as it doesn’t involve censor-provoking, do whatever he wants. With Certified Copy, Kiarostami evokes Buñuel’s sportive spirit. Talk vis-à-vis what the film is really about has continued since it was released nearly a decade ago. What intellectual underpinnings should we be keeping in mind while crafting our personal interpretations? I think it’s best to not try to analyze the movie too frantically. Here, Kiarostami doesn't seem all that interested in offering a decipherable cinematic rebus. He, rather, seems inclined to cleverly underline that cinema by design is artificial and cunning. The results are intriguing. A-