Copie Conforme (Certified Copy)
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell
Grade: A –
Written for Subtitled Online:
Like the vacant microphones which dominate the first still of Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy,” one feels like a lonely figure waiting to be broached; waiting for an unknown address from an unknown addressee. Throughout the film this feeling never really dies, since its two principal characters each take it in turns to validate their case, like barristers squabbling in a courtroom. And yet “Certified Copy,” as dialogue-heavy and briskly meditative it is as an assessment of what constitutes a committed relationship, is as fluid and engaging a disquisition as Kiarostami has produced since 1997’s “Taste of Cherry”.
Those microphones stand for James Miller (Shimell), who is attending a conference to promote, recite, and discuss his book, “Copie Conforme” (Certified Copy). As he charms the Tuscan audience with his ambivalence and dry, pronounced British humour, he also draws apparent enthusiast Elle (Binoche) into his gaze. After she quarrels with her young son about the extent of her feelings for James, they later meet inside the boutique that she owns, and embark on a day trip to a handsome nearby town.
When journeying to get to this town, their conversation in the car extends to intellectual debate based on James’s book, the philosophy of which is framed upon cultural artefacts: what makes one artefact authentic and another false? They appear to have opposing views, his disillusionment with celebrity mirrored with her embracing of the PR world. And as Elle berates her own friend Marie’s simplistic attitude towards realness he reveals a pedantic, self-righteous streak in endeavouring to fight Marie’s corner, claiming a final, elitist word on the matter. The increase of tension flaunts a degree of harvested resentment; she’s frustrated, he’s resigned, and we aren’t quite sure until halfway through the film quite why they’re acting in this way.
Kiarostami uses the basis of a book about authenticity to show conflicting views about what a relationship and a marriage means; whether relationships are a product of natural chemistry, or whether we construct them to suit our own needs and plug inherent insecurities. The cavalier (anti?) charm about “Certified Copy” is that the subjects at the head of it, James and Elle, are either theorising their real feelings to accommodate the context of their exchange, or regressing to idealistic views of romance. Each grows more direct and assertive as they learn how much they can give of themselves without being stung, and the dynamic of their dialogue grows more tumultuous and unpredictable with every passing frame.
“Certified Copy” becomes a fascinating study of relationships, of how we use different modes of address to assert our point-of-view, and to justify ourselves to each other. Binoche and Shimell’s canny ability to draw you into their interplay makes the film vibrant and stimulating as an intellectual standoff, keenly mysterious in alluding to how emotional connection can devolve into figurative deadness. Even the quaint Tuscan hideaway that they peruse, with its dotted galleries and towering antiquity, becomes more of a weapon to the couple than a distraction, a method of instilling ideological sentiment into an emotional outlet that feels all but extinct. Art becomes the subjective canvas on which they coat their philosophies and belief systems, either through frustration towards the other, or to confirm to themselves that their lives aren’t an exception to a rule.
Binoche gives Elle startling complexity, flirting with the active courage of a teenager, and cunningly baying James to play along in her playground fantasy. She colours her impassioned silent hope with bitter self-realised existential crisis, painfully unable to quash the mentality that keeps her family in a tentatively ephemeral state. “Certified Copy” recalls the recently-released Blue Valentine in its display of a disintegrated romance that may have failed through being formed upon impulsivity and false perceptions, but rather than show the car crash, Kiarostami’s film is more about picking up the pieces and confronting one’s own failures. Particularly in Elle’s case, it feels as though she’s trying to find if her grievous loss is genuine: whether she’s mourning for something that ever existed, or if it all began as a result of mismatched agendas.
Gorgeously crafted and expertly played, “Certified Copy” achieves profound worth at generating back-story through spirited cajoling, even as deeper motives lie underneath the exterior. Such is the depth of each exchange between James and Elle, one can see a single scene of this succeeding as a short film, with enough tiny inflections of hollow affection to allude to years of unspoken contempt. What begins as a resurrection turns into a fatal re-enactment, and finally a sorrowful lament. The film’s title says it all: never has an imitation of a marriage felt so true.