Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is exactly that: The Iranian modernist’s first feature to be shot in the West is a flawless riff on our indigenous art cinema. A romantic, sun-dappled Voyage to Italy with a Before Sunset structure and Marienbad backbeat, not to mention a suave acting exercise that would have been pure hell in the hands of David Mamet, Certified Copy is a rumination on authenticity using William Shimell (an opera singer by trade) as a foil for festival diva Juliette Binoche.
An English author (Shimell) arrives in a Tuscan village to promote his new book, titled (of course) Certified Copy. He wanted to call it Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy, he reveals, further playing to the crowd by answering his cell phone mid-talk. “There are no immutable truths in art,” he says. But what about life? After his self-satisfied presentation, the author acts on an invitation that is never exactly spelled out, and pays a call on a never-named woman (Binoche, who won the Best Actress Award at Cannes last year) seen sitting prominently in the audience. She operates a gallery stocked with antique replicas, and has bought six copies of his book—all to be duly certified with his signature.
Certified Copy, which was shown at last year’s New York Film Festival, is a movie of long takes and constant conversation (on the superiority of fake jewelry and the significance of Warhol’s Coke bottles, among other things). Once it gets going, it’s so fluid, it might easily be mistaken for facile. The movie is even pastiche Kiarostami in its headlong forward motion—first, as the couple drives through the glorious Tuscan countryside, and later, as they walk the medieval stone streets of the picture-book hill town Lucignano. Their relationship, mapped in a succession of close-ups, is hardly so direct: He’s aloof and testy, glumly miffed to be stuck with this bothersome French woman; she’s variously flirtatious, argumentative, and unaccountably reproachful.
When the pair stops for coffee, Shimell recounts a story regarding the inspiration for his book that, particularly in Binoche’s unexpectedly emotional response, strongly suggests some earlier acquaintance—“That sounds quite familiar,” she snaps, adding, “I wasn’t well then.” When he’s taken outside by a phone call (cell phones function as a comic deus ex machina throughout), the café proprietress strikes up a conversation with Binoche, assuming that Shimell is her husband. Binoche plays along, making up the story of their marriage even as the café owner imagines it; surprisingly, if somewhat begrudgingly, Shimell joins the game as well.
Everybody loves a lover. Lucignano, as it turns out, is a popular wedding destination—which provides this pseudo-married pair ample opportunity to interact with a varied succession of other couples, even as they bicker away the afternoon. Indeed, their worst domestic squabble occurs while an interminable wedding dance goes on outside the trattoria where they have sought refuge. Unafraid to be annoying, Binoche—who hilariously told interviewers at Cannes that, as directed by Kiarostami, she wasn’t actually acting but only being herself—holds the camera like a true star. Her nervous energy is the movie’s motor. She’s putting on an act; Shimell, appearing in his first movie, has only to react. He’s the exasperated responding to the exasperating.
When watching Certified Copy for the first time, it seemed as if the actors were role-playing their way into a shared fiction; when I saw it again, I was far more aware of the highly ambiguous hints regarding the existence of a prior relationship that Kiarostami carefully introduces throughout, along with the notion that a reproduction might be better than an original. (This is a movie in which mirrors abound.) Is their “marriage” a copy or the real thing? And what’s a performance, anyway?