An English writer (William Shimell) arrives late for his own book launch in Arezzo, Tuscany. The book (like the film we're watching) is called Certified Copy. It seems primarily concerned with art history, and its proposal, from what we can gather (the content of the writer's lecture is deliberately overshadowed by whispers and gestures exchanged between a woman in the audience and her son), addresses the slippery nature of authenticity and the inherent value of copies, or reproductions. It’s a subject at least as old as the essays of Walter Benjamin, yet technology has marched furiously ahead in such directions as to keep it from ever becoming dated. The writer is perhaps 50; he’s tall, thin and handsome, chilly yet charismatic; he has a dry sense of humour and a healthy contrarian streak; he seems the antithesis of an academic while writing on subjects that are commonly the stock and trade of the academy. (Could the model for this character be Geoff Dyer?)
The woman having such trouble concentrating on the writer’s lecture (Juliette Binoche) is French but lives in Arezzo, where she runs an antique shop. She seems only slightly younger than the writer, and is very attractive, endearingly nervous, seductive yet moody; she’s alternately flirtatious and argumentative, intelligent yet capable of emotional impulsiveness. She’s purchased multiple copies of Certified Copy for the writer to sign—that is, to certify. Her mischievous adolescent son (Adrian Moore) notes that she seems very drawn to the writer, even while she expresses serious doubts about the validity of his book’s thesis. The day after the lecture, the writer arrives at the woman’s shop and they go for a drive. (This is where you stop reading should you want to enter the film’s second half without a net.) They find themselves in Lucignano, a medieval village where people go to get married, and it’s here, in a moment of transformation so elegant, subtle and carefully graded, that the writer and the woman, who seemed in every way strangers, undergo a drama of re-marriage. A café proprietor assumes they’re a couple, and so a couple is what they become, the parents to the woman’s son, 15 years married, though apparently living apart.
How we shifted from one sort of relationship to another is fascinating and mysterious (though a second viewing reveals certain hints in the film’s first half regarding what will transpire in the second), yet once that shift occurs there’s nothing vague or under-nourished about the ways in which the writer and the woman express their frustrations, argue, reminisce or negotiate their disparate needs as a married couple. In fact, for a film so draped in ambiguity, Certified Copy boasts one of the most resonant and deeply moving—and at times very amusing—portraits of marriage I’ve came upon in a very long while. This is partly due to the precision and unobtrusiveness of the director’s hand, and partly to the seeming transparency of the acting. Shimell is an opera singer and has never acted before, and he seems all the better for it, giving a convincingly re-active performance. Binoche seems to have immersed herself fully into the role (she’s joked that she was merely playing herself); she’s unapologetic about her contradictions; she’s an actress who understands her craft so thoroughly that her craft has merged completely with her being. There are moments in this film that make a strong case for Binoche as one of the finest living masters of the close-up; there is so much going on when the camera isolates her, and none of it feels forced.
Certified Copy is Abbas Kiarostami’s first dramatic feature made outside of his native Iran. It’s both easily recognizable as a Kiarostami film (the layers of performance especially) and as a European art film. Certain points of reference will quickly announce themselves to the cinephiles in the audience—the premise recalls Voyage to Italy and Last Year in Marienbad, while the temporal structure (the writer has to make an evening train), the emotional build, and the final moments recall Before Sunset—yet Certified Copy feels like the epitome of an organically developed story, something that emerged fluidly from a stray notion that must have initially seemed an improbable idea for a film. In that sense, we can locate within Certified Copy a sort of talisman: amongst all the mirrors, the various spoken languages and the inadequate translations that so clearly contribute to the film’s themes, there is also a small part played by none other than Jean-Claude Carrière, who co-authored the scripts for the latter films of Luis Buñuel (so many of them founded in something illogical, yet nonetheless comment brilliantly on human behaviour). Carrière shows up to give a little marital advice to the writer, and you wonder if in some non-verbal way he was also present as a reminder to Binoche, Shimell, and Kiarostami that strange things happen every day. That people fall in love and try to forge lives together is only one of them.