Philosophical conundrums are rarely pleasurable, much less sensual. Yet that’s precisely what the incredible Abbas Kiarostami has done with his masterful Certified Copy. Set in the historically-rich, Italian region of Tuscany, the film chooses neutral territory for a battle to take place between a man and a woman.
She (Juliette Binoche) remains nameless and we know little about her other than that she’s French, that she has a young son (Adrian Moore) and that she owns an antique shop. He is named James Miller (played by opera singer William Shimell on his feature film debut), and he’s a writer and hails from Britain where his work isn’t as revered as it is elsewhere.
They meet shortly after he has made a presentation about his new book titled simply Certified Copy. On his book, he explains how he thinks both society and history have been unfair to “copies”; when as human beings, we ourselves are merely DNA replicas of our ancestors. She confronts him and is fascinated by the implications of his theories. They set off on a short road trip that resonates with both A Voyage to Italy and Blow-up alike. They discuss art, love, life and then they become reflections of each other, suggested beautifully by both the cover of the book within the movie and the DVD cover.
What happens then with Certified Copy is that it invites us to both surrender to its aesthetic, decadent pleasures and also to meditate on the philosophical theories it exposes. Audiences can easily be seduced by the chemistry between Binoche and Shimell, and concentrate merely on their characters’ blossoming romance. Kiarostami deftly replicates the intimate feeling of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset where we are thrilled and excited by being witnesses to the exchanges between the characters. Yet the minute when we start thinking that Certified Copy reminds us of something else, the film’s intellectual layer seems to take over.
The film then might just be his most accessible work because it knows how to trap two very different kinds of audience members: those willing to be enamored and those who seek intellectual thrills. Some have criticized Kiarostami for what they say is his most commercial movie yet, but how often does “commercial cinema” lead you to wonder on the essence of the very medium of cinema? For if the movie suggests that copies too have artistic value, we are suddenly faced with the wonderment of whether the copy we’re watching is worth something more than whatever copy someone else watched.
The possibilities offered by the film’s central dilemma are endless, and yet Kiarostami consciously allows us to put them aside and be moved from an emotional aspect. He constantly tells us that philosophy and art might be fascinating but that beyond their cerebral stimulation, we might always reach a reasonable outcome. Something that he doesn’t seem to think occurs with love, which on the surface should be as easy to solve as mathematics, but in practice becomes one of the universe’s biggest mysteries. The movie explores the differences between role playing, blossoming romances, decade long marriages and eventual breakups and it is so masterfully done that it works as the almost-scientific dissection of a relationship (compressed in under two hours), as much as it works as an example on the way in which art can bend around and thrill us with its possible outcomes and interpretations.
The people at The Criterion Collection have once again outdone themselves with what turns out to be a seemingly endless treasure trunk of cinephile goodies. Included in this double DVD set are an interview with the director where he explains how the idea for this movie started in 1995 and was suggested by none other than Binoche herself (can you imagine that conversation?).
Also included are the theatrical trailer and an hour-long documentary called Let’s See “Copia conforme” which results almost as pleasurable as the movie itself. Interviews with Kiarostami, the luminous Binoche (who rightfully won the Best Actress prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival), Shimell and crew members, enlighten us on the process of what seemed to have been a magical production. Watching Binoche laugh heartily, seconds after she filmed one of her most emotional scenes reminds us of what magnificent acting is all about.
Perhaps the most impressive bonus feature in this edition is the inclusion of The Report, Kiarostami’s second feature film, which was long thought to be lost after most copies were destroyed during the Iranian revolution. The film, which stars a very young Shoreh Aghdashloo, deals with topics similar to those of Certified Copy and as such is impressive not only for its historical value but also for being almost premonitory in a way. Although can you really say that a director is making a copy when he made the “original”? Watching The Report just makes the intellectual puzzle that is Certified Copy all the more palpable, analyzable and pleasurable.