There’s a delightfully simple premise behind Certified Copy, also known as Copie Conforme. An unnamed Frenchwoman (Binoche) sits in a Tuscan café with British author James Miller (Shamell). They’ve known each other for just a few hours. But when he ducks outside to take a phone call, the café owner strikes up a conversation about their marriage – and is not corrected. The pair play along with the charade long after they leave the café, acting out the motions not of a blissful partnership but of old, estranged lovers rekindling a bitter flame and retreading the steps of old arguments, until she tries to seduce him. Perhaps.
Or perhaps they really are an estranged couple. Each new clue, each potential red herring, makes it harder to guess. Kiarostami sees the symbolism in the slightest of things: a pair of earrings, the gesture of a hand. When Binoche’s character (who is credited only as “she” or “elle”) invites James to stay and share her bed, in the hotel room where they may or may not have stayed after they did or did not get married, is she chancing her luck with a new object of lust or making a last-ditch attempt to recapture a long-lost lover? Certified Copy may leave you certain about whether you are looking at a copy of a married or once-married couple, or the real thing, or you may still wonder just what game it is they are playing and who, if anyone, is the winner.
That, then, is the beauty of Certified Copy – the way it plays with reality and fiction, asking questions about what is true in both art and life. Kiarostami has certainly sewn the seeds for something interesting and exciting, pairing the always-excellent Binoche with Shimell, who is better-known as a bass-baritone opera singer, while also daring to skip between different languages (English, French, Italian). So what’s wrong with it?
The problem is that Kiarostami couldn’t let his simple theme be instead of pick-pick-picking at it until it starts to come apart. He could have introduced Binoche and Shimell, let their pretend/real partnership play out and left the audience to decide how to read the clues. But, no, he had to go and bookend it with layers of unnecessary academic waffle. The film opens with James Miller giving a speech about his new book, also called Certified Copy, which defends the value of copies in the art world and discusses their meaning and authenticity. Brief snatches of this talk would perhaps have been acceptable, but we are forced to sit through far too much of it.
This unnecessary and quite frankly dull pre-amble waters down the impact of watching how Binoche and Shimell’s characters interact with each other. There are signs there to be read, later, about what is and is not true, but they are obscured by all the attempts to shoehorn in a load of highbrow postulating. Couldn’t we have started at the moment they met, or their arrival in the café? The opening scenes of Certified Copy are a little too much like the preliminary chapters of books that get helpfully sidelined into introductions and prologues so you know you don’t really have to read them. This whole section of the film could have been cut, and it would have been better for it. It’s difficult not to feel that the audience is being led too forcefully to the central themes, rather than being credited with any ability to understand. Either that or the script for Certified Copy accidentally got mixed up with a particularly long-winded and pretentious academic essay.
Later, things start to fall apart again the more time ticks on. At times, it seems like Kiarostami has stopped bothering to really look at how he is framing his shots, while both characters drift too far into stereotype – he the huffy, stand-offish male, she the over-emotional woman. And throughout the film, there’s a little too much talk of art theory, as we are repeatedly bashed over the head with the ideas about reality and authenticity that would have spoken so much louder if only everyone had shut up and let us hear them for ourselves.
EXTRAS ★★ Just a making-of featurette (52:02) and the theatrical trailer.