Literate, erudite, and impossibly romantic, Certified Copy is an refined, existential fable about middle-aged second chances – endlessly fascinating, formally complex, emotionally compelling – and a remarkable meditation on the meaning of art, love, history, and the definition of reality.
On the surface, Certified Copy is a full-bodied character two-hander between William Shimell, an opera singer making his debut, and Juliette Binoche (Caché, Flight of the Red Balloon, Summer Hours), who gives a warm and prickly performance as good as anything she’s ever done. He’s James Miller, a British writer; she’s an unnamed French antiques dealer attempting to obtain signed copies of his newest release.
A melding of Sideways and Before Sunrise unfolds, meandering and talky, cerebral and dialogue-heavy, though the colloquy is a mutual provocation, not an amorous enticement. Instead, it’s an endless hall of mirrors whose reflections multiply as the couple’s drive through the countryside carries them into a metaphysical labyrinth.
Binoche’s luminous, Cannes award-winning performance is reason alone to dive into this bookish gamesmanship. She has a chance to display her noteworthy gifts as a comedienne, suggesting an entire emotive arc with one facial tic, switching effortlessly from English to French to Italian, and building a character that is resentful, manipulative, and seductive all at once. There’s a divinely comical lightness to Binoche: Even in states of conniption and complaint, she’s manically floating.
Yet the central conundrum – and the ensuing vacillation about the status of the relationship – disallows an uncomplicated interpretation. Writer-director Abbas Kiarostami (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry) has woven together a veritable tapestry of the mind, with stray thoughts and oft-disputed theories sprinkled like bread crumbs down the path of discovery and throughout the running time. Kiarostami has always loved unmotivated digressions and been enthralled by the shifting planes of fantasy and reality. With Certified Copy, he takes his discursive opacity to a whole new level, and it becomes his fullest expression of that entrancement.
That this purposefully twisting exercise takes place amid the sun-burnished cypresses and sun-dappled towns of Tuscany – where ancient statuary is as commonplace as pasta – only makes this playfully enigmatic rumination more pleasing. Luring the viewer into a mazelike thicket of fakeouts, its gimmick is nonetheless genuine, and the game is so elegantly and intricately staged that it’s acceptable if we only learn a few of the rules as we go. It’s more than satisfying to observe these grandmaster players duel across the board, even if we never figure out their mutual strategies.
While the conclusion is abrupt, the philosophical dialogue Kiarostami manages to keep aloft for well over an hour touches on intriguing questions of openness, self-honesty, and personal freedom. Dominated by two people walking and talking, like the two halves of Blue Valentine playing simultaneously, Certified Copy is a volatile mix of the studied and deeply felt, a dissecting comedy of remarriage buried in intellectual abstraction and cinephilic obsessions.
Love requires a degree of misunderstanding, room for us to project ourselves onto our mysterious object of desire. For anyone who embraces films that induce a pleasurable state of vertigo, Certified Copy is one of the great findings of the year. It’s a deconstruction of an art form.
A flawless riff on our indigenous art cinema, a rich and delicious brain tickler, a joy to experience and even more of a joy to think about afterward, Certified Copy is a genuine triumph, one to be watched and re-watched, sipped like bitter wine and mulled over in the solitary moments of a single afternoon. It may be a copy of life, but in its power, mystery, confusion, and resonance, it leads us back to the original. It is a gift that will keep on giving for decades to come.