Certified Copy (Copie conforme)

Certified Copy
(Copie conforme)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Screenplay: Abbas Kiarostami
Stars: Juliette Binoche (She), William Shimell (James Miller), Jean-Claude Carrière (Man at the Square), Agathe Natanson (Woman at the Square), Gianna Giachetti (Café Owner), Adrian Moore (Son), Angelo Barbagallo (Interpreter), Andrea Laurenzi (Groom), Filippo Trojano (Bride)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2010
Country: France / Italy / Belgium
Certified Copy Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Certified CopyCertified Copy (Copie conforme), a French-Italian-Belgian coproduction shot entirely in the Tuscany region of Italy, is the first film made by the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami outside of his native country. As is typical of Kiarostami’s work, which critic Geoffrey Cheshire rightly labeled “a cinema of questions” in a 1996 Film Comment essay, Certified Copy raises more issues than it resolves, purposefully refusing to clarify any kind of deeper “truth” or fundamental “meaning” in favor of engaging the viewer’s imagination and morality. Like Krzysztof Kieślowski, Ingmar Bergman, Terrence Malick, and Andrei Tarkovsky (among many others), Kiarostami is as much a philosopher as he is a filmmaker, and his films function accordingly, positing questions that he knows have no simple answers, certainly not ones that can be elucidated in a 100-minute film.

In addition to the various philosophical and moral questions raised, Certified Copy also hinges on a crucial narrative conundrum that takes place about midway through the story in a café in the Tuscan village of Lucignano. At this point, the relationship between the film’s two main characters, who we have been led to believe are a middle-aged English art history scholar and an antiques dealer with an interest in his latest book, suddenly changes. The exact moment the change occurs is quite easy to pinpoint (almost too easy, in fact), although the ramifications of this change are left tantalizingly vague. Has there been some kind of fundamental metaphysical change in the film’s reality? Have the two characters been pretending to be people they are not leading up to this moment? Or perhaps they suddenly start pretending? Or maybe they’re pretending on both sides of the dividing line?

The art scholar is a handsome, articulate man named James Miller (William Shimell), who we first meet as he arrives late to a talk he is giving in support of the Italian translation of his most recent book, Certified Copy, in which he argues that copies of great artworks have as much intrinsic value as the originals themselves—a position that is clearly antithetical to traditional notions of artistic value, although it does work in support of the art of film, which arguably has no true “original.” In the audience is a woman played by Juliette Binoche (her actual name is never spoken in the film, and she is referred to only as “Elle” or “She” in the credits) who gives her phone number to Miller’s translator (Angelo Barbagallo) in the front row. Later that day (or perhaps the next day), Miller appears at the woman’s antique shop, and they go for a drive in the countryside, eventually ending in Lucignano.

They appear to be strangers getting to know each other, and they politely debate the academic issue of copies versus originals, the beauty of the landscape, and how art should be viewed before veering into more personal matters, particularly those regarding the woman’s sister and her teenage son (Adrian Moore), with whom she is having problems, and his cynicism regarding lifelong love and commitment (he sneers at the couples getting married all around them, as Lucignano is a popular location for weddings). At the café, an unexplained narrative rupture resituates their relationship, and for no obvious reason they start behaving as a man and wife who have been married for 15 years. No longer getting to know each other for the first time, they are now struggling to reconnect, as the bloom as clearly fallen off the rose and their future feels unsteady and uncertain.

Given the film’s subtext regarding originals and copies and its narrative bifurcation, Kiarostami is clearly encouraging us to see the film in terms of how its different parts relate to each other, emotionally and philosophically, if not narratively. The tentativeness of the protagonists’ initial interaction as strangers and the later prickliness of their marital tensions are fundamentally linked in that they both reflect the struggle for interpersonal connection and affirmation—a basic human need, you might say. Their intellectual sparring in the first half of the film is just a variation on their martial sparring in the second half, albeit with drastically different stakes. Is it possible that Kiarostami wants us to see the film as a kind of continuum, with the first half representing how the couple met and got to know each other and the second half representing where they ended up, with the 15 years in-between simply elided (narrative elisions being quite common in Kiarostami’s cinema)?

Like the protagonists’ relationship, it is uncertain, which makes Certified Copy an inherently intriguing film. Binoche and Shimell, the latter of whom is a famed opera singer making an impressive acting debut, keep us fully engaged with their characters throughout their conversations, and Kiarostami draws us in with his signature mixture of long takes and intimate close-ups, many of which have the characters staring directly at us, as if we are on the other side of the table or somehow looking out from inside a mirror. It is impossible to watch the film and not try to take sides, as the protagonists hash out their intellectual and personal issues. Binoche’s character is earthy and emotionally unpredictable, at times sweet, gentle, and sincere, but then quickly lapsing into anger and seething resentment. Miller, on the other hand, evinces the cool distance of a man who has spent most of his life behind a wall of intellectualism that is both protective and isolating; he seems lost in his life of the mind to the point that he has trouble connecting on a basic human level. The stark differences between the characters—and why they might be attracted to each other—is clear in both halves of the film, although it seems obvious by the end that Kiarostami is primarily implicating Miller in whatever breakdown has occurred in their relationship.

And, while the film’s philosophical gamesmanship is admirable and it features a number of moments of striking emotional intensity, in the end there is something slightly lacking in Certified Copy. There is, one might say, something a bit too familiar about its rhythms and ideas, particularly its depiction of marital discord, which has long been a favored topic of the kind of traditional European art cinema Kiarostami is emulating, self-consciously or otherwise. It is not that Kiarostami’s take on the subject lacks conviction or honesty, but rather that it doesn’t elevate the discourse in any meaningful way—people fall in love, they fall out of love, their differences widen as the years go on, and so forth. Of course, the film has a built-in defense mechanism against precisely such a criticism in the form of Miller’s stance regarding copies and originals, and it may very well be that Kiarostami’s ultimate point is that human nature is so fundamentally unchanging that any dramatic depiction of it can be nothing more than a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, ad infinitum, with the only original being life itself.

Certified Copy Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-Ray
Certified Copy is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioFrench/English/Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • The Report (1977), directed by Abbas Kiarostami
  • New interview with director Abbas Kiarostami
  • Let’s See Copia conforme making-of documentary
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by film critic Godfrey Cheshire
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 22, 2012

    The image on Criterion’s Blu-Ray is a direct digital port, as the film was shot in 4K RAW using a Red One digital camera and all postproduction was completed in a fully digital workflow. The image looks extremely good and not overtly “digital,” with excellent detail that brings out all the textures in the beautiful Italian locations and strong color and contrast (the color grading and digital interpositive were approved by Kiatostami and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi). The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio master. Although there is no extradiegetic music and the soundtrack is heavily front-focused, the surround channels are used quite nicely for subtle ambient sounds to emphasize the immersion in the Italian countryside. Dialogue, which is spoken at various points in Italian, French, and English, is clear and well-balanced throughout.
    Criterion has really pushed the space limits of the Blu-Ray format with this release, as the single BD-50 disc includes two feature films and a nearly hour-long documentary. The disc could be rightly labeled a double feature since one of the supplements is Abbas Kiarostami’s sophomore feature, the 1977 drama The Report, which bears numerous thematic and narrative similarities to Certified Copy in its depiction of a Tehran tax collector and his tensions both at work (where he is accused of accepting bribes) and at home, where his relationship with his wife (played by a very young Shohreh Aghdashloo) is crumbling. The only known copy of the film is an analogue video master made from a well-worn theatrical print with burned-in English subtitles, and even though the visual quality is quite shoddy (the colors look faded and the there are constant vertical lines and splotches, especially around the reel changes), it is still immensely gratifying to have access to a film that has otherwise all but disappeared. Also on the disc is a new 16-minute video interview with Kiarostami, who talks primarily about Certified Copy, although he reserves a few minutes at the end to talk about The Report; Let’s See Copia conforme, a 52-minute Italian-produced behind-the-scenes documentary that includes lots of on-set footage and interviews with Kiarostami, actors Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, and producer Charles Gillibert; and an original threatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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