Film Review: Certified Copy (2011 US, 2010 France)

Certified Copy is a sweet and strange little romance about perception, artifice, and imitation. Filled with framed images of real Italian settings and naturally layered images, writer/director Abbas Kiarostami riffs on the nature of originality for 106 minutes in three languages. Starring Juliette Binoche as Elle, a french woman living in Italy, and William Shimmel as James Miller, a British writer promoting an art criticism book in Italy, Certified Copy flows effortlessly through bizarre changes in character, tone, language, setting, and story. What starts as a simple story of a woman trying to debate an author on the merit of his work shoots off in exciting new directions as soon as Elle and James meet in an antique shop.

The concept of the film comes down to James Miller's theory presented in his book. Essentially, the character proposes that an imitation is as good as the real thing so long as it's well-made and the viewer believes it to be real. Elle debates him initially on the text of the work before the two begin collaborating on a rocky history that may or may not be based in reality. It is to Kiarostami's great credit that it becomes impossible to separate the debate on the reality of imitation from the reality of these two characters' lives.

Certified Copy is a high concept art film that feels effortless and accessible. The decisions made before one frame of the film was shot are even a reflection of Kiarostami's vision. Juliette Binoche, the multilingual Academy Award winning actress, is an obvious choice to play this kind of character and she's simply incredible. William Shimmel, however, is not a film actor. He's an operatic performer whose job in the film is to be Binoche's match in every way. He succeeds in a way that makes you doubt the accuracy of his very short filmography.

I could go on. There are obvious connections to Last Year at Marienbad, with Kiarostami going so far as to name drop Alain, which refers to director Resnais and writer Robbe-Grillet. Famous statues and paintings are passed by without incident while late imitations and recreations are doted over. The further Elle and James travel into Italy, the more referential and bizarre the connections become.

Perhaps the greatest feat of Certified Copy is keeping the focus on two actors when so much is happening around them. From the initial James Miller reading where the room is full to an unending cavalcade of newlyweds seeking a lucky blessing from a statue, the screen is not lacking for distraction. Even with scenes featuring only Elle and James, the settings are filled with flowers, art objects, and restaurant decor. Kiarostami tricks the eye to focus on the could-be couple at all costs even when there's potential for a more realistic subject lingering on the edge of the screen. What draws us to a copy of a typical film subject done in such a strange way? The desire to recreate reality even when we know it has to be an imitation.

10/10

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