Whatever else he might be, Abbas Kiarostami is the world’s greatest living director of scenes inside cars. Consider the tantalizing sequence that comes early in Certified Copy, his first European-set film. Juliette Binoche plays a Frenchwoman, an apparently single mother identified in the credits only as “She,” who lives in Italy and runs a gallery selling antique sculptures. She has apparently only recently met a British author, James Miller, played by opera singer William Shimell. She’s clearly attracted to him, even though she spiritedly disputes the thesis of his art-theory book, also called Certified Copy, which carries the subtitle, “Forget the original, just get a good copy.” His idea, which I’m way simplifying, is that originals are overrated and widely circulated fakes can lead you to an even deeper understanding of the work — perhaps to an even deeper understanding of yourself. No, I didn’t get it either. But in a sense, the whole film is a test of the notion.
Inside her car, there’s something electric between them. She is nervous and fidgety, laughing to herself at private jokes. Something is eating her. James is all over the map, defensive and expansive. Shimell in his non-singing debut is extraordinarily charismatic: tall and lean and elegantly tousled, with the most beautiful baritone speaking voice. They talk of art and forgeries — James admits he wrote his book to convince himself of its thesis — while reflections of the ancient Tuscan buildings slide up and down the windshield. The back window looks like a small movie screen: I don’t think it’s rear-projection, but there’s a dimness, a dreamlike distance that evokes Hitchcock’s car rides in Vertigo and The Birds and Marnie. It’s all very heady, rich in nutty ideas, in sexual tension, in delicious mystery.
The bulk of Certified Copy unfolds in a Tuscan village where there’s a museum that features a prominent — and much beloved — fake painting, and where couples come to get married. As She and James wander around the ancient squares, the mood become oddly tense. And then there’s a complete change of direction. In a café, James tells She a story about the emotional distance between a mother and small child he once observed — a distance seemingly bridged when they sit together before a copy of a famous sculpture — and She begins to cry: It seems to be about her and her son. Then the old proprietress mistakes them for a long-married couple. Then, slowly, they appear to be a long-married couple, married fifteen years earlier in this very village, that marriage now in the painful throes of dissolution.
Most people’s response can be easily summed up: “What the bloody fuck?” Is this some Sixth Sense trickery? Have we been set up?
Newly married or about-to-be-married couples pass by, like mocking reflections, reminding She and James of the happiness they once felt. Old couples pass, their long-lasting bonds also a kind of distorting mirror — a poignant one, the future that will never be. As the conflict drags on, She begins to speak in French, James in English, as if only in their native tongues can they reveal their primal selves. Are they really a couple married for years? Or are they play-acting — as if to dramatize the thesis of James’s book?
I don’t know — and I don’t think it especially matters. Although some people will view Certified Copy as pretentious and its admirers akin to the cheering crowds in The Emperor’s New Clothes, I think great artists earn our leaps of faith. I think they even earn their fakes — at least the kind of thrilling fakes embraced by Orson Welles and Kiarostami himself, both always ready to equate the artist with the swindler. But it’s more than that. Leaving his familiar surroundings, the maker of Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us sees beyond the mundane particulars to a world in which all relationships, even all identities, are fluid, the real divorced from the reality.
If all this sounds rather abstract, let me add that what’s onscreen is tactile and emotional, full of shocking anger, unexpected tenderness, and devastating epiphanies. Juliette Binoche is acting a role, which means she’s a fake, in the sense that all actors are fakes. But I could swear in Kiarostami’s long takes she was dissolving before our eyes and becoming this woman. Acknowledging its artifice, Certified Copy becomes intensely, miraculously real.