By Afra Nariman
Certified Copy (2010)
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
Stars: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell
British author and art theorist, James (played by William Shimell) is touring Tuscany, Italy, promoting his new novel, Certified Copy, when he meets French storeowner and art enthusiast, Elle (played by Juliette Binoche). In an attempt to get more information about the book, as well as get a few copies signed, Elle invites James to join her for a day around town, where she would act as a tour guide of sorts. The film’s story follows a single day’s journey around the artistically iconic city of Tuscany, Italy. As the movie evolves, we become curious of the two character’s history, and begin to doubt that they have just met and fallen for each other. After much allusion, we get the idea that they are in fact married and their original acting as if they’re not was a playful attempt at a fresh start. The film explores the dichotomy of and distinction between real and fake; original and copy. We find ourselves asking; Can art ever be truly original? Do copies have any value at all? And, Can love be fake, and still be considered love? A story of romance taking place during the course of a single day, but that’s 15 year history gives a lot to work with; Certified Copy explores the philosophical elements that are at work in our everyday lives.
Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, is on a short list of filmmakers who are able to so elegantly tell a powerful story that takes place over the course of just a single day. Some of his greatest films follow that blueprint, and thats what makes them the perfect cinema that they are. Certified Copy, like most of his films, comes across as an intimate narrative with a level of philosophical depth that only few artists of film have ever been able to portray in their works so coherently. In this movie, we have another that lasts only a single day, but a story that truly spans a total of 15 years. Although the plot of the film is simple: A man and woman fall in love while touring an Italian city together for a day; in reality it can be watched, dissected and reviewed from two completely different angles. The first being the basic plot line, as a romance. As a romance, the film is deeper than what meets the eye. There is a level of mystery and a sense of the unknown throughout the entirety of the romance that we see develop. We go from believing the couple is meeting for the first time, to finding that they really have a 15 year history between them. Although the romance angle of the film has its own depth, Kiarostami, famous for the level of simplicity in the plots of his films, has never been one to limit himself to his plots alone. Certified Copy is no different. The second angle of approaching this film requires you to pick up your philosophical lens. I’ll wait…
In Certified Copy, Kiarostami explores the metaphysical and the aesthetic through a deep dive into the value of both art and love, while attempting to judge these values on the basis of some understanding of authenticity and whether or not that authenticity truly matters. The film’s title gets its name from the book written by James (William Shimell) who is in Tuscany to promote it. The contents of the book, the philosophical question that it attacks, is discussed thoroughly between James and Elle. Their conversations about the value of art, the distinction between copies and originals, and if the difference even matters, are so dense with detail and philosophical prowess, that I found myself sucked into the film that much more, only to snap out of the daze every now and then when the story returned to it’s romantic arch and things would seem to settle for a short while. Like many of Kiarostami’s films, Certified Copy not only offers us a philosophical point of view about something, from the mind of the filmmaking genius himself; but also has us ponder the questions for ourselves. During a back and forth dialogue between James and Elle that took place early on in the film, during a car ride, as many of Kiarostami’s most iconic films include; we hear both sides in an argument that highlighted the value of a copy verses an original.
One interesting point that’s made, is that all original art is a copy of something. Now, is this true for abstract paintings, too? That’s unclear, but the the first notion is highly metaphysical. That is, all art is participating in some combination of forms, and those forms are the true originals; consequently, the original art piece, is in fact, a copy in itself. Additionally, during their discussion, it is also mentioned that this conversation is a bit pretentious; or at least being adamant about copies not holding any value compared to originals is. When Elle’s sister, Marie is brought up and Elle criticizes Marie’s belief that copies are no less valuable than originals; James responds by claiming that he is in fact envious of people like Marie. This introduces us to the concept of simplicity: Is there a place for simplicity in humanity? Does it have a place in this discussion? He explains that people like Marie are so simple, that they don’t care whether or not something is real or fake… in other words, they don’t value things based on their authenticity or any other labels. Elle responds to James’ admiration for such simplicity by asking if there is a line between simple mind and simple life. That’s something we each need to ponder on our own. But James brings up a good point: Has the human race forgotten that the purpose of life is to have fun? Those who decide to be simple and care less about the labels of certain things (such as authenticity in art), tend to be happier, and therefore fulfilling their purpose as human beings.
Somebody once told me, jokingly, that something is only worth what somebody is willing to pay for it. That is; value is subjective. The way you look at something changes its value. If you are able to look past the labels that are given to certain things like original art; then you can find the same value in a copy. Perhaps Kiarostami is telling us to just enjoy ourselves and not put too much emphasis on what’s real and what’s fake; but rather, we should just value what we enjoy. Everyone’s understanding of that is different, so we shouldn’t judge one another for what we each find valuable to ourselves.
Aside from the romantic depth that is played out in a sort of mysterious way, and the aesthetic and metaphysical discussion of art throughout the film; one of the important aspects of the film that may go unnoticed due to his short screen-time, is Elle’s (and James’) son. As a response to Elle’s claim that children are tough to deal with, and her complaining that they think they know everything; James poses another contemplative and highly philosophical statement: When philosophers say something, we think its wonderful and profound; but when a kid says the same things, we don’t think anything of it. This comes shortly after Elle is explaining how her son does not listen to her. She tells the story of how he never wears a coat when its raining and when she explains to him that he can get sick, and asks him to wear a coat, he responds by saying “Who cares?” and “We all die.” She found this very illogical, but as James points out; her son has a point. Children do what he alluded to earlier in the film: they just want to have fun and enjoy themselves. We criticize them for this because we’ve grown accustomed to worrying about everything, such as authenticity in art for example, and we’ve forgotten how to just enjoy life. Philosopher David Hume believed that children are not yet enslaved by habit. They are free and they are able to be far more open minded than those who have grown up. Perhaps Kiarostami’s goal was to convey the notion that as we grow older, we lose our sense of wonder about the world; a wonder that all of us are born with, but that many grow out of. We should all just try to enjoy life a little more and not care so much about the unimportant things in life. We should try to be more like children in that sense.
With such a simple plot, but a message that has a lot of depth; Certified Copy is a movie, in many ways, about itself. In this film, Kiarostami is emphasizing the importance of simplicity in living a good, happy life; and he does this by telling us a simple story with a lot of pay off. The philosophical dialogue in the film, the metaphysical notions and the hypnotic romance story that keeps us guessing about whats real and what’s fake, while also telling us that it really doesn’t matter what’s real or fake; is all told naturally. Nothing feels forced. The film stays true to its essence of simplicity. The dialogue keeps you engaged and in contemplation, and for many, may be relatable. This intellectual romance film is an example of wonderful writing and filmmaking all together.