Two people who, by all appearances, barely know each other decide to spend the day together in Certified Copy. One (William Shimell) is a well-known English essayist touring Tuscany behind the Italian translation of his latest book, a provocative cultural-studies piece about originality and reproduction whose subtitle sums up its argument: Forget The Original, Just Get A Good Copy. The other (Juliette Binoche) is the French owner of an antiques store in the city of Arezzo. Shimell has to catch a train in the evening, but they agree, at Binoche’s suggestion, to drive to a nearby town. Once in transit, they talk with the sudden intimacy of near-strangers bound by the confines of a car, a situation they share with other characters in past films by the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Shimell tells a joke. Binoche beats him to the punchline. He makes a point. She rebuts it sharply. The conversation continues through a provincial museum and a nearby café. Then a seemingly innocuous comment from Shimell brings a tear to Binoche’s eye.
Why? “There are no immutable truths to fall back on,” one tells the other, speaking of art, but also providing a clue as to what the film’s up to. Though it’s dominated by two people walking and talking, after a point it’s as difficult to parse what’s real and what’s constructed in Certified Copy as it is in the home stretch of Inception (although Before Sunset and Roberto Rossellini’s Journey To Italy provide closer models). Kiarostami’s first narrative feature outside of Iran is nothing less than an exploration of truth, beauty, and love. Shooting with long, patient, carefully composed takes, Kiarostami fills the film with reflective surfaces—windshields, mirrors, windows—that double and distort the environment, objects, and images that get talked about, but remain seen only in part.
That sounds heady, but ultimately, the film’s slow-building, eventually overwhelming emotional pull gives Certified Copy its shape and pace. A baritone making his non-operatic acting debut, Shimell maintains a distance that suits his character. By contrast, Binoche plays a woman controlled by impulses and reactions she can’t hide. Their sources remain ambiguous, but the needs that drive them have an undeniable reality. It’s a 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.