Certified Copy (2010)
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell, Adrian Moore
MPAA rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 106 minutes
Screening at the New York Film Festival on October 1 and 3, Certified Copy has an Iranian director, French and British leads, and was shot in Italy. This thoroughly international production is also the best new movie I’ve seen this year. In many ways, this is unexpected because the writer-director, Abbas Kiarostami, while one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the 1990s, had never made a film I truly adored outside of his first feature Where Is the Friend’s Home?. His brand of long take, long shot, austere cinema, though admirable on a technical level, felt too distant on an emotional one. Then following one of his best films, 1999’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami started making mediocre documentaries and poorly imitating James Benning. In everyday parlance, he jumped the shark.
But at age 70, Kiarostami is back to narrative features and rejuvenated with a fresh, much more intimate style. Certified Copy feels as much a quantum leap for Kiarostami as All About My Mother and Talk to Her was for Pedro Almodovar.
The movie opens with a book signing/discussion in Arrezo, Italy, with author James Miller (opera singer William Shimell) promoting his new work, “Certified Copy,” which deals with the idea that copies of original art have their own worth. A flighty antiques dealer named Elle (Juliette Binoche) comes in late followed by her young, hungry and impatient son (Adrian Moore). They don’t stay long before ending up at a nearby restaurant where the son teases the mother about wanting James Miller to fall madly in love with her. The next day, Elle and James go on an outing around Tuscany and begin a contentious debate over art. That’s all that can be said about the movie’s story without giving away the amazing journey on which it takes the viewer. Suffice to say though, fans of Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset will find much to admire here.
Certified Copy does something ingenious which is analogous to one of those pictures like the vase/two faces in which one can see two different objects but not both at the same time. The movie does this with its plot. As more and more context is added, suddenly everything that has come before suddenly transforms into something else and yet still more or less makes sense. What makes Certified Copy such a startling experience however goes far beyond this twist, and it starts with the extraordinary performances from the two leads.
Juliette Binoche has only gotten better as she’s gotten older with far more nuance and range than when she won her Academy Award for The English Patient 13 years ago. It’s hard to believe this is William Shimell’s screen acting debut. Trading in opera’s outsized gestures, Shimell adapts perfectly to the more subtle requirements of the movie camera. Even without singing a note, his regular speaking voice and his handsome features give him an eloquent screen presence, but an eloquence that necessarily crumbles as the story progresses. Even Adrian Moore steals his sole verbal scene from Binoche.
Then there’s Kiarostami’s direction, which is less ostentatious even as he has Elle and James driving around town with buildings reflecting magically off their windshield. The film is filled with windows and mirrors and reflections to enhance the theme of originals and copies. Most poignant though are the lessons Kiarostami has picked up from Yasujiro Ozu (Kiarostami made a film called Five Devoted to Ozu in 2003), which is to emphasize character and giving them a lived-in feeling. Kiarostami goes so far as to adopt Ozu’s technique of having the characters talk straight into the camera when discoursing with each other.
One conversation that Elle and James have comes off so naturally that only on reflection does one realize that it encapsulates a whole argument within the philosophy of aesthetics. One character says to another, “It’s not the object but your perception of it.” Remember that line when this movie is over.