by Richard von Busack
Maybe you have to be married to understand Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. And by then, of course, it’s too late. Working in Europe, the Iranian director is able to film things he wasn’t allowed to film in the Islamic Republic—figurative art, a woman’s bare shoulders, the suggestion of adultery.
Are-they-or-aren’t-they identity games are usually more fun for the directors and actors than they are for audiences. It’s a surprise, then, how much we feel for two people visiting the medieval hill town of Lucignano in Tuscany. It’s not clear what their exact relationship is to each other. To avoid potential spoilers, it could be said we don’t know exactly how old their quarrel is.
One is Juliette Binoche, billed as “Elle” (she), an untidy but luscious woman of a certain age. She works in an antique store that has all the light and charm of a catacomb. She comes up for air to attend the lecture of a visiting author. Being a local, she wants to show the writer local sights. To paraphrase the ghost in the Christmas story: it’s not the long past she wants to show him. It’s his past.
Playing the author, James, is Kiarostami’s real find. He’s William Shimell, a British opera singer who hasn’t been in films before. Shimell’s James has a profile he’s clearly proud of, yet he’s approachable and self-deprecating. But he’s also got an arrogant streak caused by the lack of success in his field. He’s got a Sunday afternoon reading in Italy, where he has a following. But James is the first to admit his book didn’t cause a splash in his native England.
James and Elle head out for a drive in the country. While Elle is slightly schoolgirlish at first, her temper increases. James’ breeziness about the wisdom of children irritates Elle, who has been matching wits that day with her shrewd young son (Adrian Moore). The scene between mother and son is as incisive a piece of short-story telling as I’ve ever seen. The kid is as good at button-pushing as the strolling accordionists who keep turning up, making it a happy summer Sunday for everyone except the two leads.
Certified Copy retraces Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 Voyage in Italy (the film has plenty of a.k.a’s) concerns a feuding complex couple. Played by Ingrid Bergman and a never-better George Sanders, these voyagers were mocked by the simple emotions captured forever in the ancient artifacts they saw. And Elle and James are headed to a small town where newlyweds go. In a museum is a jeweled golden tree, “in front of which young couples pledge their eternal love,” as a tourist video for the place I found on-line says. Elle and James also linger around a fountain dedicated to familial bliss. There they talk to an elder married couple. The husband is played by Jean-Claude Carriere, who wrote the script of Unbearable Lightness of Being, back when Binoche was a young girl 23 years ago.
The old man’s advice is intelligent. The fountain itself looks, from the glances Kiarostami gives it, like the corny Mussolinish statuary they used to erect outside of Home Savings buildings. But you’re on slippery terrain if you sneer at the art in this movie. The movie is pointed at critics, just as it is at the long married types who mistake their spouses for pieces of furniture. As an author, James’ argument is something like a post-Marxist adaptation of Walter Benjamin’s essay on the mechanically reproduced image. James’ book, also called Certified Copy suggests a copy deserves as much honor as the original…and that it is futile to seek a true original, lost in the depths of copy upon copy.
James tells a story of a woman moved by the replica of Michaelangelo’s David in the Florentine piazza: a woman who didn’t realize the real statue is actually indoors and elsewhere. As a critic, James tries to convince himself to honor the emotion and forgive the mistake.
There is no shame in weeping at a movie, a copy, a mere counterfeit of emotion. It’s our own faults we weep for, anyway, our failures to love and forgive. And it is Binoche that makes Certified Copy so heartbreaking: her seeking of tenderness and approval from a man who won’t give her what she wants. In her search for signs of hope, Binoche builds on what could have been just an interesting game of acting, and she, above anyone, makes Certified Copy a genuine masterpiece.