A woman meets a man at a book signing in Tuscany, Italy, and takes an obvious fancy to him. She invites him to her antique gallery in nearby Arezzo, ostensibly to discuss forgeries, the subject of his new book. Nervous or excited, they agree to drive to a nearby village, to see a "certified copy"—a known forgery, once believed authentic—that she hopes will interest him. Curiously, it does not. The excitement of their "date" begins to wane and they start to bicker. In a nearby café, the owner, witnessing the squabble, assumes that they are married. The woman in question, known throughout only as "Elle" ("She"), seems to play along; and for a while the man appears to oblige. But are they acting new roles or resuming old ones?
That question goes to the heart of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's remarkable new film, Certified Copy, a conversational drama for which Juliette Binoche (playing the owner of the antique gallery) justly won the Best Actress prize in Cannes for her dazzling performance. The English opera star William Shimell plays her dour and rather detached counterpart, an expert on artistic fakes and authenticity, with no real feeling for Binoche's character or, for that matter, art itself.
The same cannot be said about Abbas Kiarostami. A celebrity in Iran, where he's made such acclaimed and hauntingly beautiful films as The Wind Will Carry Us and Taste of Cherry), Kiarostami's Certified Copy is the first film that he's decided to set outside Iran, in Italy. The choice is an important one, as it's a country not only also full of art but a meeting-ground for the film's English author and French gallery owner. Not surprisingly, which language they speak, and when, proves crucially important. So, too, is what's lost in translation between them, including in all three languages.
Most of the glowing reviews I've seen so far, including Stephen Holden's in the New York Times, appear to accept the trick or conceit of the couple—that they decide to play along for the café owner and act as if they are married. "The two start to pretend to know each other," Entertainment Weekly also has it, "and suddenly the playacting turns real." What follows from that perspective is a sad and desperate foreshadowing of any future life they'd share together—an unraveling, if you like, of the fledgling romances that audiences loved in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.
But the question of who is acting or faking in the film, and thus what is real, is not so easily settled—one reason, of course, why Certified Copy remains so tantalizingly enigmatic and, I suspect, why some reviewers found the ending frustrating (spoiler alert) in its refusal to settle the matter. Is it about second chances or eternal returns?, the New Yorker asks. As the copy for the colorful UK movie poster asks pointedly, "An original love story?" The question, Is there really one? is of course not far behind.
Still, when "Elle" sheds a tear over the author's explanation for the inspiration for his book, it's clear that she's not doing so in admiration. It's because he's alluding to her behavior with her (their?) son—behavior that, rather typically it seems, he insists on intellectualizing rather than viewing as personal or in any way connected to him. When she tells him so, in bitterness rather than mirth, any suggestion that the couple could still be playacting on a date seems highly improbable. It appears rather that they've been acting until that point—perhaps trying on a role to get out of their rut—but "nothing has changed," Binoche's character later declares, more in disappointment than relief.
To that end, the initial debate about authentic art and forgeries that both characters adopt seems a disguise for the deeper concerns that roil the film—indeed, a brilliantly subtle way of tackling them head-on. The metaphor of the "certified copy"—the author's book title—inevitably redounds on the fakery and frustration in his and Elle's relationship, as his final, haunting look makes abundantly clear. In comparable scenes, including with Binoche privately applying some make-up, and a bride whose face is transfixed with fear, even dread, Kiarostami lets us view similar expressions of anxiety about whether the match his characters have made is likely to satisfy or last.
"There are no immutable truths to fall back on," one character tells the other. As Keith Phipps noted in an astute review for The A.V Club, they are "speaking of art, but also providing a clue as to what the film's up to." Ultimately, he adds, in a statement that nails the puzzle, it is Binoche's "remarkable, unguarded performance that gives a human face to all the film's talk of originality and duplication, whether it concerns art, a desire to recreate the lives we have in the shape of the lives we wished to have, or the questions that remain unanswerable when the talking ends."