It’s difficult to say whether Juliette Binoche or Abbas Kiarostami is the star of the latter’s newest film, Certified Copy. Much comes to rest on Binoche’s delicate shoulders– the nameless character she plays is the only principal character in the film apart from co-star William Shimell– but Kiarostami’s direction, assured yet humble, constitutes bravura filmmaking that’s bold enough to excise the very perception of his presence from the events of his picture. The Iranian director’s filmmaking here favors subtlety. He and cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, employ deceptively minimalist artistry that’s more layered and involved than its veneer of straightforwardness suggests; meanwhile Binoche, an emotional roller-coaster, takes the opposite bent. Your mileage may vary on Certified Copy depending on which approach you favor more.
Regardless, the film is exquisite. It’s measured, deeply thoughtful, masterfully acted, and thematically intricate. It’s what we should expect from a veteran of the medium like Kiarostami, a man whose work I’m much less familiar with than I’d like to be. It’s completely grounded in reality and yet there is trickery at play that Orson Welles might well admire himself, woven together to create an examination of love and the intimate bonds we forge with one another. Certified Copy‘s big idea is actually quite small; the film follows Binoche’s innominate and apparently single mother as she takes author James Miller (Shimell, an opera singer) on a tour of Tuscan town she inhabits. Their interplay changes over time as they discuss James’ book– a scholarly work claiming that in art, authenticity is irrelevant– and other topics in between; eventually, so too does the nature of their relationship become altered.
Kiarostami induces that transmutation with the surgical application of dialogue, more precisely torrents of language deployed back and forth between Binoche and Shimell. It should be made completely clear here that Certified Copy is talky– delightfully so. Kiarostami’s script is playful and yet maintains a sense of gravity. The words ring true like sharp steel, fortunate considering that almost one hundred percent of the film is line-driven by verbal trades between its two stars, though occasionally another soul interacts with them and the viewer– a married couple in one of the village’s squares, Binoche’s precocious and briefly seen son, and an older woman in a cafe who mistakes James and “she” as husband and wife.
Or does she? Kiarostami artfully harnesses ambiguity to sustain a sort of continuity in his subject matters; we may not know for certain whether “she” and James are actually married, but they provide a convincing duplication of a real married couple nonetheless. “If they aren’t married, what does it matter?”, Kiarostami seems to be saying. She and James relate to each other as spouses, as parents, as old friends bonded together by the passage of time. Whether they’re wedded to one another or just strangers acting out a neo-realist romance before our eyes feels irrelevant. What the two share with each other on-screen is unequivocally genuine, wrenching, and heartfelt.
Certified Copy feels influenced; there’s a lingering sense from start to finish that Kiarostami drew on a great deal of inspiration from his peers and contemporaries to create his picture. Yet for all of the other films one may see in Kiarostami’s efforts here, Certified Copy is nevertheless an original. Traces of Before Sunrise, Viaggio in Italia, and even F For Fake can be found within the structure of Certified Copy, but Kiarostami’s work remains his own. This is a film about established relationships, not fledgling romances; it’s about two people whose marital statuses are never confirmed. It’s also about toying with and obfuscating reality, but Kiarostami refrains from being Wellesian to the degree of playing a game of editing smoke and mirrors with his audience. Undeniably, Certified Copy endures as a singular piece of filmmaking.
And while one could argue for the film’s value as a showcase of great directing– which it is– many will walk away from the film treating it as a showcase of great acting. In large part, the honors here go to Binoche; as the nameless woman, mother, and wife, she is extraordinary. Binoche touches on the same notes of quiet nuance as Kiarostami does in his direction, but is just as quick to work herself into fits over her son, her reminiscences and arguments with James, and so on– and then she dials back the volume to repeat the process all over again. Watching her segue from one emotional state to the other is a marvel. Shimell, on the other hand, mostly stays within the same decibels throughout the film, but as pompous, stubborn, and obtuse as he may be he’s still capable of tenderness and vulnerability. Together, they make the film sing.
I can’t help but come back to Kiarostami’s cinematic vision, though. Long, uninterrupted takes are often lauded as being among the hardest to successfully execute in the cinematographic repertoire, and Certified Copy employs such shots with high frequency. By the time the credits roll, there’s no doubt that you’ve witnessed the efforts of a master of his craft; this is a picture that only a true talent could make, endlessly patient and artistically daring and yet to the eye stripped down. Ultimately it’s the marriage between career-high artistry and performance that makes Certified Copy so thoroughly deserving of praise and countless laurels. Through Kiarostami’s eyes, we see how simple relationships can look from the outside; through Binoche’s and Shimell’s acting, we see that as simple as they appear, their complexities are endless.