Last winter’s Blue Valentine chronicled the brutal breakdown of a relationship while ironically contrasting it with flashbacks to the couple’s meeting and halcyon early days. It was a smart cinematic experiment, but it has nothing on Certified Copy (Copie Conforme), which premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
Writer-director Abbas Kiarostami, known as a leading example of Iran’s “New Wave” cinema, has made a two-person drama that superimposes falling in love on falling out of love. It’s like watching the two halves of Blue Valentine playing simultaneously. Or that old “Kids in the Hall” comedy sketch where a couple on a first date decides to skip the movie and go right to the sex. Then they decide to skip the sex and go straight to the guilt they know will follow.
How do they know? Human beings are creatures of habit, which is why we should probably stop chasing originality — in art and in life — and just get ourselves a good copy. That’s the thesis of a popular book by protagonist James Miller, a dapper intellectual played by British opera baritone William Shimell. (Only in a European art film could a book about artistic reproduction be described as “popular.”)
The film begins with Miller expounding his ideas in a Tuscan lecture hall. In the audience sits antique dealer Juliette Binoche — who, her preteen son (Adrian Moore) cheekily suggests, is smitten with the writer. A few scenes later, Binoche and Shimell meet up for a drive in the countryside, but what seems like a first date quickly becomes something more fraught and enigmatic.
While Shimell is polite, courtly and just a bit self-important, like a man trying to impress a woman he’s just met, Binoche is ... angry. She acts as if she’s known Miller forever, and not always in a good way. This impression only intensifies when a café owner (Gianna Giachetti) mistakes them for a married couple, and Binoche does nothing to dissuade her. As we like to say in America, this woman has issues. The viewer can’t be sure whether her neglectful husband actually is Miller or an absent third party who shares his aloof, cerebral attitude. But, by the time Miller starts playing along with her, it hardly matters. If his book is to be believed, the copy is as good as the original.
Films about two people talking aren’t exactly box-office gold, but when they work, they really work: Think Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Those films were about chemistry and connection, though, while Certified Copy deals with just the opposite. In one tiny but memorable scene, we watch an elderly man yelling at his wife, or so it seems ... until he moves, and we see the cellphone in his hand. (It’s not the only moment in the movie where a cellphone underlines the rift between a couple.) Binoche’s character yearns for romantic and sexual connection every bit as abjectly as Ryan Gosling’s did in Blue Valentine, but she can’t stop killing the mood with her ax grinding. When she’s most sure she’s going to get what she wants — and triumphantly steps into the bathroom to retouch her makeup — she’s wrong. It’s a tragicomedy of errors.
Without an actress as physically stunning and formidable as Binoche in the lead role, all this drama might be agony to witness. Playing to a vacuum — a sparring partner who often refuses to engage with her — she somehow makes desperation watchable.
Kiarostami uses lush visuals to lull us into acceptance of his leisurely pace and jarring scenario. When the couple drive, reflections of the sky flow across their windshield, a painterly image almost more beautiful than direct views of the Tuscan countryside. Once again, a copy trumps the original.
But it’s not the artistic artifice that makes Certified Copy worth seeing — it’s the emotional realism. Call it authenticity or what you will, but Binoche’s rage gives the movie an energy many art-house films lack. Shimell’s character may be the love of her life or just a stand-in for him, but she is the real deal.