A Certified Copy Review: Reality, Love, Language and All That Jazz

Love is an issue film, and indeed all other forms of entertainment which aspire to do more than slightly tickle, has been very concerned with it since its beginnings, and since cinema is an art that has enchanted so many people over the course of the last century or so, it is only natural that when filmmakers attempt to decipher the mystery of romance, each of them have their own takes, their own approaches and at the end, their own results. But nonetheless, patterns emerge, a set of rules, if there is such a thing, come to be and we note a certain resemblance between some films and others, and we call it genre. The genre I intend to write about today, and the genre which Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy belongs to, has no particular name of its own, but its characteristics are so explicitly distinct and immediately recognizable that it doesn’t even require a name. These films offer a deeper and more profound take on the issue of love, and therefore attempt to understand human kind’s need for this feeling. This is achieved through intricately written dialogue, a sort of conversation that feels spontaneous and at the same time deeply poetic, beautifully-shot scenery which the protagonists fit right in, but perhaps the most important ingredient for the success of this nameless and enchanting subgenre of romantic cinema is the “dreamlike” feature of the worlds the characters inhabit. This could be easily explained through an example, so let’s talk a look at a few films that potently use this mechanic: Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), Sofia Cappola’s Lost in Translation (2003) and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017) are just a few of many. The resemblance between these films is the fact that their protagonists are strangers to the worlds they briefly inhabit, and more often than not, they are there without their acquaintances’ knowledge. These worlds are perfectly crafted to suit their romantic needs, if you’ll excuse the cheesy writing and dirty insinuations, they are places where love doesn’t have to be complicated but can just exist in its full beauty, ephemerally however.

Certified Copy is a 2010 film by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, his first narrative feature outside of his home nation, starring celebrated actress Juliette Binoche and British opera singed William Shimell. The film’s plot revolves around two characters, a nameless woman, “Elle”, and an author by the name of James Miller. The author is in Italy’s Tuscany to give a talk about his book, “Certified Copy”, which argues that in art, a copy has the same value as an original, since an original is only a reproduction of the object of the person being drawn. The woman played by Binoche attends the talk but leaves briefly after her son urges her to go, but not before giving her number to the author’s friend in hopes of meeting him later. They do meet again indeed and they drive around the city and then visit a neighboring small village where young couples usually go to get married. The nature of their relationship drastically changes when a woman mistakes them for husband and wife and they do not bother to correct her, but rather they fall into the roles and deeply believe them, thinking they have been married for fifteen years.

As mentioned above, there is a certain breed of romantic films that are a notch above your usual kissy flick; they are more profound, more analytical in a way and to be frank, more artistic. What it is exactly that renders them superior, no one can say, but we can try, talking specifically about the film at hand as it shares the same attribute with its peers.

Much of Certified Copy’s beauty is the result of its astounding cinematography. The idea that love, and the act of its establishment is largely the result of setting, both in real life and in film, is usually met with a certain reluctance, but it is true nonetheless. Since James Miller and the woman’s first encounter, they do not stop cruising through beautiful landscapes and gorgeous little Italian villages where love is celebrated and endorsed, and although they do not fall in love technically, but the environment they suddenly find themselves in with a seemingly new-found memory of a fifteen-year old love serves to deepen their illusion and give it strength and support. The audience falls to the same trap as well, love is associated with beauty in all of our minds, and long shots of mesmerizing scenery followed by a certain look in a protagonist’s face or a fleeting flirty conversation is almost synonymous with romance in the viewer’s subconscious.

Another important theme the film treats is our definition of reality, how hazy it is, and how it is entirely shaped by our entourage’s perception. Reality is nothing but a rewording of popular opinion. That said, I think this is the perfect opportunity to compliment Kiarostami’s treatment of this subject, how seamlessly the change from the first half of the film to the second is, and how it is entirely the result of an old lady’s opinion. When the café’s owner mistakes the two protagonists for a married couple, Binoche’s character does not bother to correct her; she does not completely believe her, but only at first. This change is smooth, almost instantaneous and not at all disturbing as it should have been. When the “couple” later encounters an old married couple and the husband gives James some advice that would supposedly improve his “marriage”, and the latter follows it, it works like a charm, when in reality, Elle and James are almost perfect strangers.

Throughout the first half of the film, up to the point where the two protagonists get entirely immersed in their little play, they are two different identities, from two different cultures, and each of them tries to keep his and even takes pride in it. The single greatest mechanic that enables this is the brilliant use of language. The film is in English, French and Italian. The protagonists’ conversations are mainly in English, since it is James’ only language, and the lady really does try to cooperate, for lack of a better word, but at times, and especially when she is expressing an opinion that is her own and that he does not agree with, she prefers to do so in either French or Italian. Language is a tool of communication, but it can also be an emblem of unique identity and proud and ferocious belonging, Certified Copy makes that crystal clear.

Coming back to Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy (1995-2013), we had the chance throughout the three films to spectate Jesse and Celine’s relationship as it started, developed and although it did not technically end, the trilogy concluded with a depressingly true notion: love does end. This subgenre of romantic cinema is the truest rendering of the phenomenon; it does not try to fool its audience with any clichéd happy endings where the protagonists kiss in the rain to the tunes of Lionel Richie or Richard Marx, but rather, it tries its best to offer a true and realistic vision of how love progresses and undoubtedly ends. In the case of Certified Copy, this attempt is trickier and more intricate, since the protagonists do not fall in love per say, but rather believe that they had been together for a long time, so love does not get to decay, it is already in an almost-fatal state. The only way we get to experience the downfall of this imaginary yet very real bonding is through the dialogue, which is morose, descriptively narrative, often angry and consequently, extremely poetic.

Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is an absolute masterpiece, a deep character study, a mesmerizing joyride of beautiful shots, a love tale as enchanting and fairytale-like as its basis, and a film for the more tasteful and experienced cinephile.


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