The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s delicious brain tickler, Certified Copy, is an endless hall of mirrors whose reflections multiply as its story of a middle-aged couple driving through Tuscany carries them into a metaphysical labyrinth.
The travelers are a beautiful, high-strung woman, identified only as Elle or She (Juliette Binoche), who runs an antiques shop in Arezzo, and a British author, James Miller (the operatic baritone William Shimell), whom she meets after he gives a lecture on his new book, Certified Copy.
James’s treatise, a tricky, erudite consideration of artistic authenticity, ponders why a reproduction is not considered as good as the original, then takes that question of copies and originals in any number of directions to illustrate his conviction that nothing is ever really new.
Elle, a single mother with a 10-year-old son, has eyes for James. After the lecture, the two drive in her car to the village of Lucignano and along the way debate aesthetics and begin to bicker. When they stop at a trattoria in Lucignano, the cafe owner assumes that they are a long-married couple and shares her traditional views of men, women and marriage. A statue in the village square of a woman serenely resting her head on a man’s shoulder is scrutinized for its fundamental truth about the sexes. After the meal, during which James has a hissy fit about the wine, he and Elle slowly fall into the roles the waitress has assigned them.
By the time they visit a hotel in which Elle insists they spent their wedding night, you are uncertain whether they are collaborating in mutual playacting or if their initial meeting was actually a reunion after a long separation. If their 15-year "marriage" is just a facsimile, then the game they are playing, in which emotional darts are tossed, seems less and less frivolous.
Before the trattoria the main topic of conversation — authenticity in art — is a continuation of James’s lecture, during which Elle pointedly challenged his ideas. Artworks that were presumed to be originals and later found out to be forgeries are discussed.
The debate leaps into a broader contemplation of art versus life. Isn’t the Mona Lisa a reproduction of its model? Why does an everyday object as depicted by Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol take on value when exhibited in a museum? Aren’t we all DNA "replicas" of our ancestors? What does it imply about art and reality that not one of the gorgeous cypress trees lining the road they travel is like any other? Does that make each an original work of art?
Certified Copy, Kiarostami’s first feature film made outside his native Iran, is such a conspicuous leap from neo-Realism to European modernism, it sometimes feels like a dry comic parody. As the movie goes along, it begins to deconstruct itself by posing as a cinematic homage, or copy, if you will, of European art films of the 1950s and ’60s, with contemporary echoes.
Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, in which a couple played by George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman travel to Naples to sell a house, is the most obvious forerunner. Also alluded to are Michelangelo Antonioni’s Avventura, with its stark juxtapositions of ancient and modern images, and Alain Resnais’s elegant, memory-obsessed mind bender, Last Year at Marienbad. It has also been suggested that more recent antecedents like Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are role models. In any case, Certified Copy virtually announces itself as a deliberate stylistic composite.
Despite its modernist sensibility, there is little reason to be intimidated, unless you find the character of James abhorrent. An arrogant, short-tempered blowhard flaunting a cultivated charm, he fatuously declares at one point that human beings are the only species to have forgotten that pleasure is the purpose of existence.
Yet he dwells inside his head. The concept for his book, he remarks, was just an idea that occurred to him during a visit to Florence. Moving through one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, he is unable to see what is in front of him or to begin to live in the moment. He is so out of touch with sensuous reality that in the restaurant he fails to notice when Elle disappears to put on lipstick and dangling earrings and returns all aglow.
The voluptuous appeal of Lucignano, a village where young couples flock to marry in a local chapel, is lost on him. His first impulse is to sneer at the naïveté of newlyweds who believe that their happiness will never end. The place is a vibrant paradise of stunning architecture, ringing church bells and cooing pigeons; the scented, sun-drenched atmosphere overflows with romantic promise.
Binoche, whose performance won the 2010 Cannes Film Festival award for best actress, humanizes the film and lends its theoretical substructure flesh and blood and emotional weight. For all her prickliness, Elle, who speaks fluent English, French and Italian, may be at home in the world of ideas but she is also a woman of deep feeling. She brings Certified Copy to intense, pulsing life.