Certified Copy (IFC Films, NR)

Both are kind of bitchy, mincing, and passive-aggressively unpleasant, and they do not make good company for the film’s 106-minute running time.

 

 
 
 
 
Most people who go see movies expect a certain amount of clarity from them; they like to be told a story, and a story that they can understand by watching the film only once. I do not fall into this category. Often I become much more infatuated with movies that don’t make sense—or that seem like they might make sense after repeated viewings.
 
That said, I’ve long been a fan of the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami; most of his best films seem clear enough but leave one or more big unanswered questions in the end (see his best film, 1997’s Taste of Cherry). His new film, Certified Copy, follows this trend. It isn’t so much that it doesn’t make sense, more that it seems like you missed something big and important when in fact you didn’t.
 
Certified Copy is Kiarostami’s first fictional film made outside of Iran and with Western actors. It is set in Italy but stars the French Juliette Binoche (who is now 47 and seems completely incapable of aging) and the British opera singer William Shimell. Shimell plays James, a famous author, and Binoche plays Elle, a fan of James’ who is charged with taking him about the Italian countryside.
 
The drop point comes about halfway through the movie; we start with James and Elle sharing a restrained flirtation, which hovers around a motif of the argument over whether or not a copy can be as good as an original (also the topic of James’ newest book). But then in a café a barista mistakes Elle and James for an old married couple, and from that point on, as far as the audience can tell, James and Elle are an old married couple. Had they been the whole time? Are they just role playing? Is something else going on? This is never made entirely clear.
 
I am fine with this question being unresolved, but even so Certified Copy did not really work for me. The main culprits are the characters of Elle and James. Both are kind of bitchy, mincing, and passive-aggressively unpleasant, and they do not make good company for the film’s 106-minute running time. (Also, I tend to like movies with unlikeable main characters, but I think in this film’s case the effect was unintentional.) This is compounded by the fact that Binoche isn’t as strong as she often is, and Shimell is downright bad at times, usually in the more dramatic scenes.
 
Still, there are things to recommend. Kiarostami maintains his trademark of gorgeous cinematography of characters sitting in a car talking (seems hard to pull off, but Kiarostami culls some of the prettiest shots in recent memory, all in a car). It’s interesting that the film is in equal parts English, French, and Italian, none of which are Kiarostami’s native language, and Binoche is making a habit lately of working with the world’s best directors as soon as they can be pried from their native country (see also Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon). And really, the question of what exactly happens narratively has kept Certified Copy lingering in my memory much longer than I would have expected—I think it would hold up well to a second viewing, if only for the elucidation of nagging questions. Even so, it’s hard to recommend a film that focuses on two such grating characters as Elle and James, especially when their grating-ness is not a key component to the film’s goals. | Pete Timmermann

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