From Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (1998's "Taste of Cherry"), "Certified Copy" is the writer-director's first film made outside of his native country. The change in locale hasn't caused him to lose his step. Leisurely paced and sneakily elusive, the film is difficult to define in the way that its evolvingand revolvingnarrative continuously plays with the viewer's expectations. What begins as a shimmering slice-of-life romance eventually becomes an altogether different kind of love story, one that closely compliments the other while still proving to be far from a duplicate. Kiarostami deceptively lures us in with a false sense of security before introducing rapidly shifting identities, timeframes, and thematic conceits. It's deliciously ambiguous, not needing to explain itself. The evocative subject matter is more than enough to carry us through his illusory flights from linear storytelling.
At a speaking engagement promoting his award-winning book "Copie Conforme," cultural heritage connoisseur James Miller (William Shimell) speaks on the concept of originality, making the argument that nearly everything in the world is but a reproduction of something else. Even people, he reasons, are but DNA replicas of their ancestors. Art expert Elle (Juliette Binoche) is immediately taken with him, intrigued by his theory even as she is hesitant to buy into it wholesale. James meets Elle the next day at her antique shop and they decide to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon together in the Tuscan village of Lucignano. James makes note that they must return by 9:00 so that he can make his flight, but as they meander around town, visiting a gallery, getting coffee, and seeing the sights, their relationship goes through a metamorphosis, taking on such a life of its own that it literally alters who they are to each other. Or maybe they're just fooling themselves.
"It's not the object that matters," states a self-assured James. "It's a person's perception of it." And so the same could be said of "Certified Copy," wherein the hows and whys make little matter next to the feelings of the people involved. An unofficial companion piece to 2008's sublime "Summer Hours" (also starring Juliette Binoche), a devastating study of the changing value of a person's material possessions after they pass away, this film, too, covers untrammeled territory. James is adamant that society places too much importance on so-called original works of art, making the point that copies should be seen as just as valuable because there are, after all, virtually identical clones. Besides, he questions, is the real "Mona Lisa" original, or can Leonardo da Vinci thank the woman who posed for the picture? Without her, would that painting have the same smile? Without her, would it even exist? Elle is fascinated and attracted by James' ideas, but becomes frustrated by his cavalier response to everyday life. His bleak notion that nothing truly matters because death is inevitable and nothing lasts forever strikes an uneasy chord within Elle, and she resents him for it.
Before James' stop in Tuscany for his tour, he and Elle had never met. They are still very much in the early stages of whatever it is that is going on between themor are they? When a cafe owner mistakes them for a couple who have been married for fifteen years, Elle chooses not to correct her. After they leave the coffee house, James has slipped into the identity of Elle's estranged, probably philandering husband. Is this just an elaborate game the two are playing that they take too far? Or has James, perhaps, been Elle's husband all along, the two of them playing roles so as to not have to confront their flagging relationship? "Certified Copy" is stunning as a well-conceived exercise, a branching-off from conventionality that keeps the mind working even when the viewer's feelings are left a little chilly by the occasionally prickly nature of the characters' personalities. Writer-director Abbas Kiarostami doesn't go out of his way to present James and Elle as lovable and endearing; what is important to him is that they be understood as authentic people with real desires and regrets, regardless of which reality might be the accurate one.
"Certified Copy" is attractively lensed by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, unassuming in its natural beauty the same way Elle and James are coy about the hand they're playing. Then again, they might not be playing at all. If all in life is but a copy, then who is to say that either version of themthe author and reader who have just met, or the husband and wife who no longer stop to notice each otherisn't the truth? When the two end up in a hotel room they may have stayed in years before, Elle claims she vividly remembers it and James maintains that he has no recollection. As all their problems come into focus just as the possibility of reconciliation hangs in the balance, one struggles to wrap their head around director Abba Kiarostami's chess board and wishes there could be a more explosive catharsis to go along with the story's demanding center. No such luck, because life isn't like that. In the end, no matter who these characters are to each other, they've grown to mean something to us. Their emotions are true.