Criterion // 2010 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 9th, 2012
Love itself is an enigma.
"I'm afraid there's nothing very simple about being simple."
James Miller (William Shimell) has just arrived in Tuscany to promote his new book Certified Copy (actually, he's promoting the Italian translation Copie Conforme). The premise of the book is summarized in its alternate title: Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy. Miller lectures a small group on the subject, and afterwards agrees to meet up with an audience member named Elle (Juliette Binoche, Dan in Real Life). The two debate the premise of Miller's book as they wander across the beautiful Tuscan countryside. Then...things change.
Yes, the plot summary I've provided for Certified Copy is rather vague, but it's nearly impossible to really discuss what the film is up to without providing a small spoiler of sorts. For those who wish to have a completely "pure" viewing experience, I'll simply say that the film is an artistically ambitious, thought-provoking effort that is well worth your time. Those of you who wish to know more and/or have already seen the film can stick around. Sound fair? Good.
Minor spoilers from this point forward.
At approximately the halfway point of Certified Copy, a woman who runs a small coffee shop makes the assumption that James Miller is Elle's husband. Elle doesn't contradict the woman. From this point onward, the two strangers who were getting to know each other in the film's first half suddenly begin acting like a bedraggled married couple in the second. So have they just begun engaging in some complex role-playing, or did the role-playing take place earlier before we were exposed to the truth? The film is intentionally slippery about this, leaving plenty of clues on both sides to support an argument in either direction. However tempting it may be to scrutinize the film in the hopes of learning the definitive truth (and if you search online, you'll find numerous conflicting theories written by intelligent people who seem quite sure of themselves, including some who insist that the movie is artsy science fiction and that the two halves of the film are taking place in parallel universes), the fact of the matter is that the uncertainty of the matter is the point.
A large portion of the conversation in the film focuses on the premise of the book introduced in the opening scene: is an original piece of art actually superior to a copy of that original? More specifically, how much does the knowledge of whether or not something is an original work of art affect our appreciation of it? During one scene, James and Elle examine a painting of a woman. For many years, the painting was thought to be an original, and it was highly celebrated by art critics and enthusiasts. Later, it was discovered that the painting was a copy and that the original was being held somewhere else. Did that knowledge suddenly make the copy less valuable or beautiful, despite the fact that nothing had actually changed? James takes the question even further: is the original work of art even original if it's based on a human being? In that case, isn't the woman who inspired the painting the actual original, and the first painting of her merely the first copy?
If you're the sort of viewer who finds this kind of conversation stimulating, you're sure to find Certified Copy a rewarding and mentally stimulating journey. As the characters debate this subject between themselves, the movie holds a debate of sorts with the viewer: does it matter which side of the film is presented as the truth and which side is presenting an illusion? Here are two entirely different relationships between the same people, both of which are engaging and presented in persuasively truthful fashion. Will one suddenly be diminished if we find out when the couple is acting? Is a convincingly faked marriage inferior to a real one? Regardless of which side is genuine, director Abbas Kiarostami (working outside of his native Iran for the first time) firmly suggests that it's entirely possible for two people to have been married for a long time and still be strangers to one another. Regardless of whether or not James and Elle (if that is actually her name; IMDb is far more certain of this than you'll be after watching the film) are married, Certified Copy has a great deal of thoughtful things to say about marriage.
The movie might not sound like a particularly dynamic experience; the bulk of the running time is comprised of two people talking as they wander across Tuscany (it's easy to see why so many have labeled-it a "middle-aged Before Sunrise"). However, Kiarostami ensures that the film is always as riveting visually as it is verbally (if not moreso), as the director frames one clever shot after another that further hints at the film's true themes and intentions. There's a spectacular scene in which James and Elle are driving: we see the two characters looking straight ahead, people on the street fading away through the back window and a sweeping city skyline zooming over us through the reflection in the windshield. In its own way, the construction of the shot is as absorbing and mystifying as some of the eye-popping visual effects presented in Inception.
The actors play a large role in make the film as engaging as it is. Juliette Binoche is obviously the film's only big name (and the first high-caliber professional actor Kiarostami has worked with), and she's as excellent as ever. During the film's first half; she comes across as stressed-out and somewhat flinty, while during the second half she turns needy, heartbroken and subtly sensual. She hits every beat with precision, continuing to demonstrate that she's one of the most gifted actresses working today. The real surprise is Shimell, an opera singer making his acting debut. He has a magnetic screen presence not entirely dissimilar to that of Marcello Mastroianni, though Shimell has a much greater supply of cool detachment. Likewise, he also goes through a transformation: during the first half, he's calmly bemused. During the second, he's bitter and caustic. Both characters gain both our sympathy and our spite from time to time, though the film's concluding scene sharply informs us of who is primarily to blame for this couple's failings.
Certified Copy (Blu-ray) arrives sporting a sublime 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The film was shot with the Red One digital camera, and is yet another film that demonstrates that camera's diversity and surprising warmth. The detail is simply stunning from start to finish; you can see every blade of grass on the roadside and every whisker on Shimell's face. Depth is spectacular, blacks are deep and inky and flesh tones are warm and natural. Combine the quality of the transfer with the lyrical beauty of the film's cinematography and you have a disc that is simply a pleasure to behold. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also excellent, though it rarely gets a chance to demonstrate its strength. There's no underscore and sound design tends to be light, so you're mostly just getting the dialogue the film offers. What's here is excellent though, and when sound design does get busy (such as a scene in which several people are exiting a church while bells ring and birds fly through the air) the mix is completely enveloping.
Criterion has delivered some interesting supplemental material, beginning with a bonus movie. Yes, that's right. You get Kiarostami's 1977 feature The Report; a portrait of a crumbling marriage that features quite a few scenes reminiscent of moments in Certified Copy. That bad news is that the awful transfer (the only surviving copy of the film was very badly damaged) makes the movie nearly unwatchable at times. If you can deal with the VHS-like quality, you might find the movie an interesting companion piece. Elsewhere, you get an exceptional 16-minute interview with the director, plus an hour-long documentary on the making of the film featuring interviews with Shimell, Binoche and other cast and crew members. Finally, there's a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Godfrey Cheshire.
It's easy to imagine plenty of viewers regarding Certified Copy as a frustratingly vague experience that spends entirely too much time self-indulgently probing its own depths. However, patient viewers who believe that thoughtful conversation and ideas can be as enthralling as large-scale action set pieces are likely to find the film riveting. It's never less than compelling over the course of its 106-minute running time, and it lingers with you for a very long time afterwards. Criterion's Blu-ray release is terrific.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English, French, Italian)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Film