Certified Copy (Copie conforme)

France (2010) Dir. Abbas Kiarostami

English author James Miller (William Shimell) is in Tuscany to promote his latest book about copies versus originals in the art world. A French antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) arrives at the book reading with her son (Adrian Moore) but is forced to leave shortly after, so she gives her address to Miler’s translator. Miller and the woman meet up the next day and go for a drive where they have a number of heated discussions that poses many questions about the true nature of their relationship.

If you’ve ever read the reviews on IMDb of certain foreign language and art house films where someone complains they found a film dull or hard to follow, then get lambasted by the snobbish pseuds who tell them to stick to watching Adam Sandler films, Certified Copy is one of the films that will incur such responses. It marks Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s first foray outside his homeland, bringing his unique experimental style to Europe. Having made a cameo appearance in his bold 2008 film Shirin, Certified Copy marks the first full length collaboration between Kiarostami and his long time friend Juliette Binoche, whose name value no doubt helped this film gain a European release.

This is a difficult film to summarise and, as alluded to in the earlier paragraph, a difficult one to sell to mainstream audiences. Despite the director being Iranian the dialogue heavy approach to the film will make many people believe this is what they describe as a “typical” French film. It opens in the most unexciting manner with the titles running over a shot of an empty podium in a small room before James is introduced. A few minutes into his reading and in walks our nameless female lead and her obstreperous son, whose hunger leads to an early exit. The eventual meeting between Miller and Binoche’s character (I wish she had a name it would make things so much easier) is a little awkward at first with a touch of humour as Miller is asked to sign a number of books while being driven around town by his excitable lunch date. Along the way they start to discuss the theme of Miller’s book.

Gradually the conversation morphs into one about human relationships as the woman complains about her son’s behaviour which is defended by Miller, creating the first sense of strain in the discussion. At a café when Miller steps out to take a phone call the café owner (Gianna Giachetti) assumes they are a couple and the woman doesn’t correct her. Suddenly the couple start talking like a married couple and old wounds are reopened. The question for the viewer is of course do these two actually know each other before? If so what happened?

Kiarostami isn’t keen on giving answers and leaves the viewer to develop their own ideas and draw their own conclusions about the nature of the relationship between Miller and our mystery woman. Instead the questions are piled on by having his characters act in such a peculiarly familiar fashion, responding with recognition to the other’s words and reacting accordingly. We are left to surmise as to whether the woman didn’t correct the café owner about her and Miller being married because she wanted to believe it, or because there is history between them. His reactions stir the pot with equal ambiguity to the point that we start to believe it too. Or do we?

Using a number of situations, such as discussing the artistic value of a statue with another couple, gate crashing the photo shoot at a wedding or arguing over red wine in a small restaurant that lays out the woman’s feelings quite clearly, telling us she is clearly one for romantic gestures and declarations, compliments and assurances of her worth. Miller on the other hand takes a cold, logical, intellectual approach to things and keeps his emotions in check, being needed to be told when to show affection rather than doing so spontaneously. In other words he is a typically repressed Englishman. In one scene they argue because Miller supposedly fell asleep one night while waiting she was “making herself pretty” in the bathroom. She takes this is a sign he doesn’t love her anymore. Miller retorts by recalling a time when she fell asleep at the wheel and asks if that meant she didn’t love “their son”.

By making the characters so hard to read, as well as the intention behind the developments of the story, the two lead players have their work cut out for them in portraying such complex people. For the role of Miller, Kiarostami cast highly regard British operatic baritone William Shimell who makes his film debut here. Conversing in both English and French Shimell has the easier role of the two but it is by no means a straightforward one for his first outing. While he has all of the natural mannerisms of the unflinching, stiff upper lip Brit he is a little too restrained but for a maiden outing he does a competent job.

Carrying the load with effortless aplomb is Juliette Binoche, who seems almost too connected to her idiosyncratic nameless character. The energetic Ying to Miller’s stoic Yang, Binoche’s anonymous woman is fluent in English, French and Italian, with her personality seemingly unwittingly changing to suit each language. The beguiling quality of the film is all down to Binoche’s performance and I defy anyone to name such a high profile actress who can jump between arthouse and mainstream films in any language without compromising one ounce of her credibility.

Certified Copy is a garrulous film of great ambiguity that shouldn’t work yet while not strictly “entertainment” it is an oddly engaging thesis on perception from one of the most interesting if stubbornly challenging filmmakers working today.