There are certain films that are simply magic. They are few and far between, and the experience of watching them often comes up over you. You realize you’re watching a masterpiece, and you don’t want the film to falter. You don’t want it to lose its bearings and for some reason become stupid, or disappointing. Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy envelops you in a story that is slow to unfold, but as it grows, it becomes intoxicating. William Shimell and Juliette Binoche star in this film about an author and one of his readers who go for a ride in the Italian countryside, only for their relationship to change as they spend more time together. Our review of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of Certified Copy follows after the jump.
Shimell plays James Miller, an English author in Italy promoting his latest book, “Copie conforme” (aka Certified Copy). The film starts with him giving a lecture about his art, and Kiarostami films this in a deceptively dull way. He’s laying out the film in front of you, but – like a good magician – expects you not to notice the tell. His novel is about the value of forgeries, and how we benefit just as much from imitation as the real thing. Elle (Binoche) brings her son to the lecture, and gives James a note. The son is distracted and wants to leave. Elle goes with her son to lunch and he taunts her for flirting with Miller.
Elle and James meet up at her work, and go for a drive to see some art in the country. They talk about his theories, and she disagrees with many of his premises, and they argue about his work, and her sister, and talk about the inspiration for the book – which involved seeing a mother and son.
Then, as they have coffee, a waitress mistakes them for a married couple. Elle continues this conversation with the waitress when James gets a phone call, and when James returns he plays along. And – as they walk around the village – their conversation deepens as they begin to either role play, or reveal the true nature of their relationship.
Certified Copy is a duet, and both Binoche and Shimell are stunning. It’s worth noting that Shimell was a complete novice when he took on the role (he’s been earning positive reviews for his more recent work at Cannes) and came to this from the opera. Kiarostami must have a great eye if he thought he could get this performance out of the Shimell. But more than that, Kiarostami’s approach here is simply breathtaking. It’s always amazing to watch a director in complete control of the frame and the medium, and if you’re a tech nerd, it’s amazing how often his shots feel so right. The film is conceived in such a way that there’s no wasted frame or ideas. You can feel the gentle hands of a master throughout the film, and the opening sets up a tone that plays out perfectly.
If you haven’t seen the film, it’s probably best to leave it at that, and see if the film intrigues you. It’s also on Netflix instant, but that transfer has nothing on the Criterion Blu-ray. I previously saw the film on a screener copy and checked out the streaming version, but the Blu-ray blows both out of the water. It was like watching a new movie, and the cinematography by Luca Bigazzi is breathtaking.
But, in terms of spoilers… as for the central mystery, there are basically two reads on the film. One is that they’ve had a relationship before (which is possibly confirmed by him knowing some of the “lies” she’s told), or that everything that happens after a certain point is utter fabrication. I tend to believe the latter, because of the title of the movie: Certified Copy, aka Real Fake. To me the joy of watching the film is watching two people who come across as real people who enact a game with unknown rules. They are playing improv, and they keep throwing things at each other and challenges that make the game both fun and deeply personal. Are they working out past baggage through a fake relationship, is the game over when the film ends? Have they been lying, or have they been acting nice at the start in the hopes of having a pleasant reunion? That’s one of the fun parts of the film. Binoche – in the supplements – talks about how she felt like she was dancing while performing the film. That was my reaction to watching it, and as the film kept moving forward I felt like I was watching a masterpiece. When it concluded, I was high on cinema. This feels light and airy, and that’s part of its deceptive charms. This is a great work of the highest order.
And part of that is because – like a lot of great movies – it’s partly about cinema. We buy into the lies, and we use phoniness in cinema to bounce off of in real life. We create empathy for things that are both us and not us.
The Criterion Collection presents the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master audio. Supplements include another Kiarostami film, his second feature, 1977’s The Report. The transfer of the film is horrendous for Blu-ray and features burned in English subtitles, but it is the only existing copy of the film, so for that it’s a treasure. There’s a new interview with director Abbas Kiarostami (16 min.) where he reveals his read on the movie, and his inspirations for the film (which included Binoche). There’s also a documentary “Let’s See Copia conforme” (52 min.) that talks to the director and his stars, his cinematographer and producer about making the film. Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer.