Up to a certain point, cinematic puzzles can be fascinating. They reel you in as your mind goes into overdrive and you desperately try to understand who is deceiving who. Still, a puzzle that lasts too long grows tedious, especially if it teases the possibility of a solution. Certified Copy nearly belongs in the latter category, yet it’s saved by phenomenal performances and intriguing on-screen chemistry. Writer/director Abbas Kiarostami keeps audiences guessing well beyond the point of emotional investment, so his thoughtful slice-of-life story works better as a thought experiment.
James Miller (William Shimell) is an English author who just finished a halfhearted lecture in the Tuscan countryside. He’s there to promote Certified Copy, a book arguing that replicas of high art have as much value as the original work. Such an idea infuriates Elle (Juliette Binoche), the owner of a local antique store. Her business is built on the value of original works, so once James finishes the lecture, Elle has him stop by for a chat. Their conversation does not begin well. Frustrated with her son, Elle complains about his insolence and James bemusedly defends him. The day becomes bizarre once a barmaid mistakes the pair for a married couple; Elle does not correct the barmaid’s mistake, and James reluctantly takes part in her ruse. The game only gets more surreal as Elle turns James into a proxy for her husband.
You see where this is going. The interaction of Elle and James becomes a real-life manifestation of his thesis. She treats him like her husband, and he responds as if he’s been married to Elle for fifteen years. They made no lifelong commitment, yet the honesty of the feelings turns their relationship into, well, a copy. The actors have no problem with such a conceit because this kind of pretend is an actor’s job. The achievement of Binoche and Shimell is how they suggest world-weary wisdom with the tiniest gesture. Binoche in particular is fascinating; drawing from an enigmatic screenplay, she nonetheless plays Elle as if she’s rehearsed the role her entire life. Interactions with her son convey familiar maternal frustration, and her infrequent tears suggest deep understanding of the character. William Shimell is trained as an opera singer and has no problem with James’ pompous nature. Prone to detached irony and boyish tantrums, Shimell does not shy away his character’s unlikable qualities. His flirting with Elle only gets more complex as they go about the day. Is he playing along because he likes Elle, or because he wants to prove copies can have as much worth as an original? Kiarostami and his cast offer no easy answers.
With understated camera work, Kiarostami gives the impression we are watching events unfold in real time. There are long takes where one person waits for the other – the sort of shot no mainstream director would dare make – yet the unforced pace gives the impression the characters have time to think about their game. Short on romance and with and brimming with ideas, Certified Copy is an anti-love story that’ll please audiences the same a thoughtful essay might. So if you’re the sort who enjoys rigidly ambiguous meta-commentary, here’s a cerebral delight that awaits passionate dissection.