Shimell, an English opera singer, plays James Miller, an art expert who has written a book called Certified Copy, about the worth and unique authenticity of art forgeries. He argues that a reproduction is just as valuable as the original, partly because the original is itself a copy of a real event. Binoche plays an unnamed woman, a fan with a teenage son who waits impatiently while James is giving a lecture. Her son teases her, insinuating his mom has a crush on the author. And, she seems to. Binoche leaves her number with his Italian translator and she and James meet on a Sunday. He signs multiple copies of his book for her, one made out to her sister, Marie, who with her simple love for her husband is in sympathy with James’ philosophy of art forgeries: it is not the work itself that has value; it is our appreciation of it that gives it its value.
Their dialogue is imprecise and mawkish when James first meets her. Binoche is self-conscious and excited to be in the author’s presence. They take a drive. “I can’t believe you’re sitting in my car.” This shot is amazing. For several minutes, Binoche and Shimell are in a two-shot, photographed from outside the car, and the reflection of the buildings on both sides of the street obscure, in flashes, both actors. Their dialogue is innocuous but the scene is riveting. We’re really seeing two images; a visual clue to the idea of the film. There are overlaid images in many moments in Certified Copy. Director Abbas Kiarostami’s directorial approach at first seems breezy and loose, but in Shimell’s and Binoche’s first scene together as they wander about her shop, precise choreography between the two leaves Shimell alone among many art forgeries, and Binoche reflected in a small mirror in the background. They face each other even when they are separated in the filmed frame. A similar image happens later, when Shimell stands alone near a motorbike and in the side mirror Binoche is reflected off screen. I can’t say I’m familiar with Kiarostami’s work; I don’t know if his double images are unique to this film or important in his overall body of work but they support the material, which is not so much about doubles but the multiple interpretations of what two people say.
We are like the tourists on Binoche and Shimell’s vacation. We hear what they say and yet lack the greater context of their lives to truly understand. The advantage we as an audience have is that unlike these tourists who exist as extras in the film, we get to follow these two people and hear the whole of what they say. It is still not a fault of the picture that we are not given a blunt truth. The film is a puzzle which cannot be solved, and when I saw the film for the first time I was so overjoyed to be actively participating in the story. Depending on how I viewed the material, the story would change and satisfy me. It also is very mysterious and good at dropping clues through dialogue and facial expression. The flipside is that when we solve this puzzle, the second time around Certified Copy isn’t as absorbing. We can view the early scenes and notice the subtle clues that support our theories. I, for example, found great meaning in a quick line of dialogue by Binoche’s son which suggests much of the complicated dynamic between these three people. To be honest the line is so quickly delivered and I don’t speak French and I missed it the first time. But if films are meant to be viewed more than once then the lasting impact of Certified Copy will not live up to its reputation. If I had written this right after I saw the film once, I would have talked only positively about it. I didn’t know what to say then other than, ‘see it and interpret it for yourselves,’ and I hoped that I could elaborate on my own opinions about the movie itself with a second viewing. Truth is I found it difficult to get into it in the same way. Like a mystery film I kept examining the film for evidence and found the situation betrays itself.
I still admire it a great deal. The digital photography is sublime, and Binoche is terrific. I think many years down the line historians will make her out to be the greatest performer to ever appear in front of the camera. It may sound like hyperbole but I really believe it. The things this woman can do with her face are amazing. She would have been fabulous in silent movies. She’s also great at delivering lines, and without giving away my interpretation of the film the great material is the quarrels that this couple shares. This is a terrific script. It balances three different languages—English, French, and Italian—which Binoche can speak perfectly. There is a great exchange between Binoche and the proprietress of a small café. The proprietress assumes James is her husband, and the woman gives Binoche a reasonable speech about what husbands, even bad ones, give their wives.
I feel I must say a bit about how I saw the picture. I sensed a great deal of hostility in Binoche’s voice early on towards James. This is when I began to suspect things aren’t as they appear. At first I was made uncomfortable by her forward, angry speech. It is not at all how people behave to strangers and I felt embarrassed for her. But James seems a willing listener. Neither backs down on their beliefs and yet they never once put an end to their union. I think something more is going on, something more complex than are they strangers or are they married, but a saving grace of the picture is its ambiguity. It also makes it more of a puzzle, and it distracts somewhat from the generally brilliant experience it is to watch Binoche’s and Shimell’s performances.
Certified Copy (2010)
(a.k.a. Copie conforme)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Writer: Abbas Kiarostami
Stars: Juliette Binoche and William Shimell
In French, English and Italian
Runtime: 106 minutes
Certified Copy is currently available On Demand from Comcast and other service providers. It should be released on DVD by IFC in the near future.