A Rohmeresque ramble under the Tuscan sun, Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is a freewheeling battle of the sexes. And Juliette Binoche is in a bitter mood for love.
Through The Cypress Trees by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
That Kiarostami can make his cerebral relationship drama so funny and so enjoyable is nothing short of brilliant. Of course it helps that Certified Copy takes place in the beautiful Tuscan towns of Arezzo and Lucignano, but it’s the sparkling interplay between the leads that brings a luminous universality to the enigmatic script. Juliette Binoche won best actress for her performance as the unnamed Elle at Cannes, elegantly piaffing between comedy and tragedy. And she’s neatly counterbalanced by opera singer William Shimell making his onscreen debut as suave writer James Miller. Add in a sticky millefeuille narrative of fiction and counterfiction, and Certified Copy is a delicious treat for those willing to risk a bite.
Like Peter Brook’s Moderato Cantabile (for which Jeanne Moreau also won best actress at Cannes) or Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love, Certified Copy is a tale of two lovebirds circling round a ripple in their reality. Neither death or adultery, here it’s a fictional past they concoct between them as they wander the cypress-lined streets of Tuscany. James is an English writer, in Italy to promote his book Copia Conforme, where at the launch he meets Elle, a gallery owner specialising in original antiques and a voracious autograph hound. As he gives a long and painfully mundane speech about his new book, Kiarostami’s camera focuses on her, flighty and restless, reluctantly fussing for her hungry son. Reality calling. It’s a majestic coup de cinema – her unheard whispering, his unseen oration. With this dysfunction of the senses the gender divide is already there.
She leaves her number, he calls, they meet. And as they drive through Arezzo, the sunlit houses reflected on the windscreen, they talk about his book, about the value of a reproduction and the freedom in not knowing the difference between copy and original. The drive is reminiscent of Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or winner Ten, society in capsule. And their animated conversation runs deeper than the philosophical, as She defends originality in all things; a constant striving to be the best one can be, while he is satisfied with simply being, the adoring look that confers value, not the object itself.
Edifying as these conversations are, they hit a few emotional seams along the way too. He sketches an anecdote of a mother and son in Florence, who may or may not be Elle and her son. The mother doesn’t tell him the reproduction David in the Piazza della Signoria is a copy of the Academy’s original, but still his wonder is genuine. And She is floored by the coincidental detail of them walking together, but always ten metres apart. James’ quest for a simple existence becomes framed in a gender struggle, opting out from family life to pursue his creative endeavours, a privilege refused to a single mother constantly drowning in mundane questions such as “Where’s the stapler?” In her most despondent reproach, She bitterly complains her child may be enjoying his life, but he’s ruining hers.
Intermingled in this reality, a fictional narrative develops. The couple develop a backstory as if they’ve been married for fifteen years and he’s never home, playing out the fears and frictions that could get in the way of a burgeoning romance. Their role-play is like a relationship in miniature, a sampler as they battle the ghosts of the past, their hardened personalities, while trying to find common ground, some room for love. Striding on ahead, all She wants is for him to put his arm round her, for someone to keep up and shoulder the responsibility. And their argument around the baroque fountain in a square becomes a confluence of these rivulets of gender and originality; she reacts emotionally to the female resting her head on her protective man’s shoulder while he abhors the gaudy sentimentality. This relationship in rewind is unwinding.
As they play out their relationship, posing as a happy couple of fifteen years for newlyweds, or revisiting their honeymoon hotel, details begin to corroborate; he only shaves every other day and not on their wedding day. And it’s a deliciously uncomfortable ambiguity as we question what’s fiction and what’s real. Maybe they are married after all, struggling to rekindle a love after a spring, summer, autumn and winter of fading light in this middle-age Garden of Leaflessness. But in the final reel, this eel-like film takes another leap forward into heartbreaking vulnerability, as the two characters lay their hearts on the line. Here La Binoche is at her best, preening herself in front of a mirror for her grand amour, or wiping the lipstick from her mouth in bitter disappointment. Their emotional tango contains parallel movements of eagerness and reluctance, culminating in his symmetrical mirror scene, a final symbol of his decision to commit.
Like a signed edition of his book, their relationship is an original copy; a reflection of themselves and of previous relationships, but also something new and undiscovered. With its bittersweet battle of the sexes, Certified Copy is a profound exploration of modern relationships. In English, French and Italian, it truly is a European movie with a familiar hint of Kiarostami – medina meanderings and grainy textures reminiscent of Where Is The Friend’s House? And as She stutters “J-J-J-James”, copying her brother-in-law’s stammer and by extension his simple adoration for his wife, she confesses her love to him in an affecting moment of genuine emotion. It’s a lifetime of love in the afternoon.
Certified Copy is released in the UK on 3rd September.