I can’t claim to understand the mysteries of Certified Copy, nor do I care to. It doesn’t matter to me if this couple, played by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, are strangers when they meet at the beginning of the film, married but playing a game, or both with a magic shift from unfamiliar to intimate midway through the picture. The nature of their relationship is unimportant, they remain themselves all the way through. This is a movie about two people who talk about their thoughts, share their feelings, hurt each other, reconcile, grow further apart and closer together. To simplify them to a normal story is to diminish what Binoche, Shimell and director Abbas Kiarostami are able to create in Certified Copy. This is a brilliant movie, soft and easy like the Italian afternoon it takes place in.
Shimell is James, an English writer visiting Italy to promote his latest book, or perhaps he’s lived there for the last 5 years. Binoche is Elle, a French shop owner interviewing him for a magazine, or perhaps she’s his wife. They certainly act as if they’ve never met when Shimell visits her antique shop, but almost immediately they speak to each other with a familiarity and a hostility that you wouldn’t expect of strangers. They drive to the countryside and get coffee in a cafe and while James takes a phone call outside Elle and an old barista share complaints about their husbands. It’s a wonderful scene, sad and poignant, and it appears this older woman is the future for Elle, who is practical and no-nonsense while James is a theoretical philosopher. But Elle is still a romantic and expects certain things from her husband, mainly his presence. The old woman differs, a husband obsessed with a job is better than a husband with another woman. “He makes you a married woman,” is the old woman’s earnest thesis. This is enough.
From this point on, it seems that James and Elle are married, and that their marriage is at a low point. She wants him around, he’s preoccupied with his unbending theories. His book is about how true art is in the eye of the beholder, that the piece itself is secondary to the perception of the person looking at it, and therefore a forgery is as much a piece of art as an original. When ever we see people in movies they are created both by the performance of the actor but also by our perceptions as an audience. The relationship of Elle and James is deliberately opaque so that we can’t project our feelings onto it. We don’t know what to do with these people, who are they? For some, this might take them completely out of the movie. For me, it was liberating as I was able to watch two lives intersecting without context to colonize it into what I think it should be. Well, maybe not without context but with contradictory contexts. Beyond this heady storytelling, Kiarostami grounds his movie in earthy and real moments of such loveliness or poignancy. They have a discussion about a statue in a fountain that Kiarostami deliberately never lets us get a good look at, Elle loves it, James does not. She enlists the opinion of a couple in the square who are admiring the statue to add weight to her argument but doesn’t get the result she wants however. The man (French filmmaker Jean-Claude Carriere) gives James a piece of advice that is simplistic but profound, especially for him and his cold methodical demeanor. In a church that doubles as a museum there are a number of wedding parties taking pictures, Elle and James are asked to participate. When James gets up from the bench he’s been sitting on, a bride sits down, waiting her turn, beautiful and terrified in her white dress. It’s a spectacular shot.
Certified Copy is filled with moments like these, faces and people who don’t directly comment on the action between Shimel and Binoche but have something to say about human nature or love. Later, an old couple help themselves walk and in a span of 30 minutes we’ve seen the frightening beginning of new love with the terrified bride, frustrating complacency that has overtaken James and Elle, and the matter-of-fact dependence of old age and shared experience. This old couple is the visual representation of what the barista was saying, we know nothing about these two but they are married, and they make each other so.
My admiration for Juliette Bincoche could occupy its own essay but she is once again brilliant here. Showing a woman trying with growing desperation to bring a change in the man opposite her. There is a heartbreaking sequence when she makes herself up for him in the bathroom of a trattoria with the excitement of a girl awaiting a first date but with the precision of an old hand, deftly producing the look that will work for her. When she presents herself, James is too frustrated by the poor wine list at the restaurant to notice. James has been objective in his manner so far, coldly clinging to his opinions even when they hurt Elle. Here, in his frustration with the wine, he may be betraying his own feelings about the state of their union, masquerading as a complaint about the trattoria.
Shimell, an opera singer, making his debut as a non-singing actor is terrific as well, aloof and a little confused that Elle can’t understand his flawless logic. The first time I saw Certified Copy, I thought that the two were strangers who decided to act married as a game. The second time I believed they were married who acted like strangers at first. Neither is right and neither matters as both times I was absorbed by the two people, not by my perceptions of their relationship. It’s the best movie of the year.