Having watched Certified Copy twice, I'm still not sure it's a movie. A mirage perhaps, maybe a house of mirrors, but certainly not a film in any conventional sense. If you require plot, easily identified characters and definitive conclusions to enjoy your film-going experience, I'm afraid that Certified Copy may not be for you. But if your patience allows you to watch a slowly revealed exploration of the human condition, then you're in for a premium 100 minutes.
Juliette Binoche won the Best Actress Award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of Elle, an enigma of a woman who invests an afternoon with James (William Shimell in his film debut). Elle meets James at a reading of his new book, Copie Conforme (English translation: Certified Copy), which asks us to explore why an expertly crafted reproduction is never valued as much as an original.
As they wander through a sun-drenched Tuscan village, we realize that Elle and James are a mere reproduction of a couple. They play-act as husband and wife, flirting and fighting their way through scenes from a faux-marriage. Audiences may debate exactly what's going on, but it's an intriguing discussion.
Writer/director Abbas Kiarostami (this is his first feature filmed outside of his home country of Iran) sets a pace not unlike arthouse films of the 1960s from Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) or Michelangelo Antonioni (La Notte). Certified Copy is all about the dialogue--not what the characters have to say about their actions as much as what they have to say about the consequences of their actions.
"If we were a bit more tolerant of each other's weaknesses, we'd be less alone," Elle concedes.
The camera has loved Binoche throughout her Oscar-winning career (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The English Patient, Chocolat), and this may be her most vulnerable performance to date. Kiarostami allows the lens to linger on long close-ups of self-observation. Binoche shifts from indifference to seduction with the arch of an eyebrow. She's sexy, sweet and intellectual all at once.
Unfortunately, Shimell is not up to the task of co-star. One of Britain's most accomplished baritones, Shimell has sung in the leading opera houses of the world. But those skills are not required and, in fact, may be a hindrance for such an intimate experience as cinematic soul-baring. Ultimately, he is the weakest link of Certified Copy, and that's a significant weakness given that he and Binoche are in almost every frame of the film.
Near the conclusion of the film, the couple visits a hotel room lit only by a waning sunset. Elle reaches out to James and whispers, "Stay with me. Stay." I didn't know if I had witnessed the start of a love affair or a reflection of one long gone, and I needed to watch it again to really see it. I'm glad I did.