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Movie Review: Navigating the Uncertain Emotional – And Astral – Worlds of CERTIFIED COPY


It takes Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy eighty minutes to gain emotional clarity, and so much of that hour and twenty minutes – the bulk of the picture– plays like Cannes Arthouse Favorite: The Movie.  In relaying an afternoon in Tuscany between British writer James Miller (opera star William Shimell) and a French antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche), Kiarostami leaves no narrative or aesthetic pretensions unchecked.  He lets takes run uninterrupted for minutes; he has his leads stare directly into the camera when addressing one another; he includes reams of discourse about the nature of art and how a copy can have just as much power as the real thing; he even names Binoche’s character “She” – always the mark of the pretentious arthouse drama.

Most notably, Kiarostami drops some Last Year in Marienbad-level head f—kery when he (Warning: Spoilers to follow) radically and unexpectedly changes Shimell and Binoche’s whole dynamic.  As the film begins, the two are strangers; Miller is in Italy on a book tour, and “She” offers to give him a tour of the Tuscan countryside, ostensibly to better conduct an interview with him, though her dress and eager demeanor suggest that she has more carnal delights in mind.

For an hour, we follow them around the village of Lucignano, and it’s when they enter a café that things get twisty.  Miller steps outside to take a phone call, the café’s owner speaks to Binoche as if “She” and he are married, and “She” responds in kind, gently complaining about some of his spousal deficiencies.  Naturally, we assume “She” is playing the part of the beleaguered wife just to placate the owner, but when Miller re-enters the café, he too starts acting as if he were her husband, and the rest of the picture finds them arguing about their marriage and referencing obscure details from their fifteen-year-union.  Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Twilight Zone, though Kiarostami never has his leads acknowledge the strangeness of their predicament.

Intellectually, this plot twist does an expert job of serving Kiarostami’s central thesis.  All that talk about the validity of copies snaps forward with sudden force; even if Shimell and Binoche’s characters are just play-acting at being lovers, their commitment to the new emotional realities they occupy are no less truthful than if they were (are?) married with children.  The question, Kiarostami asks, isn’t which reality is real, but whether the distinction matters.

Emotionally, the movie is harder to absorb.  The aforementioned arthouse allowances create a distance; we can see and appreciate what Kiarostami is doing, but we don’t feel it the way we do in similarly minded romantic travelogues like Before Sunrise/Sunset or Summertime.  Binoche almost conjures up a visceral connection to the viewer; she gives the role an abrasive, off-putting aggressiveness in the first half that softens into palpable sadness in the second, almost as if she’s first angry that “She” and Miller aren’t more than strangers, and then depressed that married life with him doesn’t live up to her expectations of it.  But she can’t quite punch through Kiarostami’s cinematic conceits, and she isn’t by helped Shimell, who plays everything at a single note – wryly self-absorbed – that quickly becomes monotonous.

But then the movie starts working, just when you might start entertaining the notion of shutting it off (I know I did).  “She” and Miller stop in a small bistro for an early dinner, and Miller ends up exploding at her.  It’s satisfying to watch Shimell’s sleek composure break, and doubly so that the façade cracks over such seemingly trivial matters: he doesn’t like the wine that the waiter brings them, and he’s still peeved that “She” guilt-tripped him for falling asleep early on their anniversary even though he’d just gotten off an international flight.  Given Certified Copy‘s measured tone thus far, the intensity of the fight galvanizes the picture and illustrates a truth oft ignored by most fiction, that most squabbles in relationships come not from affairs or abuses, but from both parties falling ever so slightly out of sync with one another.  She wants a quiet dinner for two; he’s still fixated on petty grievances; and that disconnect ultimately draws blood.

From that moment on, Kiarostami drops his postmodern pretenses; they can’t compare to the sight of “She” beautifying herself in the restaurant’s bathroom, oblivious to Miller seething just outside, or the pained impotence on Miller’s face when “She” darts into a church to get away from him for a moment, and his awareness of her disgust with him becomes the only thing keeping him from following her inside and apologizing.  The film culminates, as it should, with “She” and Miller sharing a long conversation in the hotel room where they spent their anniversary, and the stakes have risen again.  Now, the issue isn’t which reality do they occupy, but rather if their married selves can endure the uncertain future ahead of them.

Nothing else matters, and maybe that’s the point.  Whatever their origins, whatever the truth, “She” and Miller seem like a couple now, and we can’t help but yearn for them.

Criterion’s Blu-ray looks lovely, with lush and textured RED digital photography and a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio that is clear and full of subtle ambience.  The supplements, as always, impress; we get an interview with Kiarostami, the comprehensive Let’s See Copia conforme making-of documentary, a trailer, an essay from film critic Godfrey Cheshire, and – best of all – The Report, Kiarostami’s rare second film from 1977 which covers similar thematic ground as Certified Copy and is, in many ways, a stronger, less mannered project.

Certified Copy makes you work, and despite my issues with it, it gains considerable power as it progresses.  It’s no Close-Up, but it will do for Kiarostami fans.

The film is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.