Film review by: Witney Seibold
It’s been said that the best films don’t just tell a story, but espouse a philosophy. Abbas Kiarostami‘s “Certified Copy” is more than a tale of a bourgeois French woman and a smug British author wandering through small-town Italy, discussing art and marriage, but explores the function of truth in our lives; it’s central question seems to be that if something is a fake, but we don’t know it’s a fake, and we still derive pleasure from it, does it matter if it’s not real? If the lie is convincing enough, and everyone believes it, is it still a lie? Truth, the film is saying, is mutable.
Juliette Binoche plays Elle, a haggard housewife, and mother of a bratty 10-year-old son. She is a French ex-pat living in Italy, and she is one of those insufferable pseudo-intellectuals who dresses well, and claims to know fine art, but is really an average person with little to say. She tells a lot of stories about how she disapproves of her more interesting friends. She has a faraway crush on a British author named James Miller (famed opera baritone William Shimell), who is in town for a lecture on his newest book, all about hoaxes and frauds in the art world, and how genuine copies may be more valuable than genuine articles. Elle, who owns an antique store, has arranged a day-long interview with James, much to the mockery of her son. The two of them are soon on the road to the outskirts of town, where they will spend the day bickering about art theory.
They talk about the value of copies, and the need to be genuine to ones’ self. At a local bar, the bartender mistakes them for a married couple. Elle does not correct her. They begin talking about their life together as a married couple, and how they don’t spend enough time together. You begin to sense that this is a weird play-acting exercise of some kind, where they are exploring relationships through falsehood. But then they begin accusing one another of marital vices and engage in some pretty serious character assassination. What’s going on here? Are they really married? Are they play-acting now, or were they play-acting being not married before?
Is this a desperate role-playing grab to save their obviously toxic marriage? Is it an oddball artistic exploration that has gotten out of hand? Or is it an odd, ecstatic, common madness? The film never lets you know.
Kiarostami, am Iranian director, and hugely experienced master of documentary-like filmmaking, poses these questions with an unforgiving eye. He is executing an intellectual exercise, of course, but he is also going to put us in the hearts and befuddled minds of the characters as well. The takes are extended, and we begin to feel the Tuscan sun warming us, and then oppressing us as time passes. We feel the strange mutation of the relationship between these two people, however smug or insufferable they may be. She feels concern for their relationship, and he seems to be playing along. In one scene, when he begins to become unduly outraged about bad wine, the power dynamic seems to change. Themes of love and marriage, and the changing nature of an aging relationship enter the frame, and are unable to leave, even if we ‘re not convinced that these two are actually a married couple.
Truth may be beauty, but it may also be fake beauty. Or maybe beauty doesn’t matter, so long as it’s true. Or maybe truth and beauty are irrelevant, if you’re stuck in a rut, and have madness to share. Or maybe it becomes true if you merely act like it’s true. Kiarostami has made a slow, contemplative film about philosophy that is fascinating, intelligent, and has a lot on it’s mind. His borderline essayic picture, and intriguing mystery may be one of the better films of the year.