Average moviegoers have a tendency to be suspicious of narratives as confounding as Certified Copy, wondering if perhaps the ambiguity is either A. a big joke at their expense, or B. the sign of a filmmaker who really didn’t know what the hell his own movie was about. But there’s something particularly fascinating about allowing the ground to shift beneath your feet throughout a viewing of Certified Copy. Let yourself not “get” it at any given moment, and let it turn into something you’ll find it hard to stop thinking about.
At the outset, the situation seems fairly clear. James, an English author, has just finished a philosophical sort-of-art-history piece about what can be learned not just from original works of art, but from copies and representations of those works. At a lecture in Tuscany, the woman is in the audience, her teenage son (Adrian Moore) nearby. She invites him to her antique shop, and from there takes him on a drive to one of her favorite spots in the countryside, where they small-talk about her family.
But gradually, in ways initially imperceptible, something changes between them. James’ anecdote in a cafe about the incident that inspired his book suggests that his path and the woman’s may have crossed before. The cafe’s proprietor assumes, while James is outside taking a phone call, that the two are married, which the woman initially doesn’t contradict before making a joke about it upon his return. She says that he can’t speak French, but then he does. Soon, their conversations drift toward the possibility that they are actually married, and trying to recapture the feelings of their wedding and honeymoon in this same place 15 years earlier.
Kiarostami certainly provides some evidence for what isn’t going on here. When James’ story in the cafe inspires the woman to tears at the realization that she is the woman he was describing, his genuinely startled response makes it clear that this hasn’t simply been a full day of pretending not to know one another. Earlier, when she describes the sister for whom she is having James autograph one of his books, it’s similarly obvious that they’re not acquainted. So what the hell is going on by the time they’re sharing memories of the time she once fell asleep at the wheel while driving with their son in the back seat?
The best answer may not necessarily be a particularly satisfying one: It is all of those truths at the particular moment any given conversation is taking place. They are strangers, and they are an old married couple; they are casually comfortable with one another, and there is an awkward distance between them. In the course of a single day, Kiarostami is able to explore the entire arc of a relationship by allowing each moment to play out a unique reality: the giddy sense of discovery during one glorious European stroll, like a headier Before Sunrise; the realization upon returning to that spot that it’s impossible to re-create a long-ago moment; the foolish, bitter arguments that can emerge out of seemingly nothing at all.
These two central performances are challenging, and not always perfectly effective; Shimell, an operatic baritone, doesn’t have an easy task in his first movie role. But Certified Copy feels nearly perfect even when the actors aren’t. Though the film opens with a lecture that appears to suggest its thesis statement, you may actually need to go back a little farther, to the empty stage we see before James arrives. Maybe this is a relationship defined by absences, which makes it easier to understand why they don’t always seem to know one another. And maybe it’s something else, as well. And maybe every time you watch, there will be another truth to discover.
Juliette Binoche, William Shimell