I wish I could write more film reviews for The Awards Circuit. My busy schedule and availability of titles relevant to the site (as well as films I actually want to see) prevent me from publishing more than a meager amount of articles focused solely on analyzing a single film. This is also partially because I try to be as topical as I can with every article of mine. If too much time has passed between a film’s theatrical release and my viewing of it, then I don’t write a review. To me, my opportunity has gone and the readers have moved on.
I now realize the foolishness of that position, particularly for something I love, as I can think of no more egregious disservice to a great film than staying silent on it. I hope I can at least partially rectify that mistake with a belated endorsement of Abbas Kiarostami’s warm, beautifully played and flawlessly acted Certified Copy, which I caught back in late March and still remains one of the year’s standout achievements.
**Warning: This Review Contains Spoilers**
The Iranian director’s first foray outside of his home country does not at all travel away from his usual themes of artifice and the nature of “truth.” We open in Tuscany, with British academic James Miller (William Shimell) giving a lecture about how the notions of authenticity in art don’t matter, as the copy in of itself has its own unique meaning and original works often replicate from older styles. Sitting among the audience is an unnamed French antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) and her restless son, who is taken by Miller’s thesis and charisma but has to leave early. They serendipitously meet again at her shop and they decide to take a drive into the country, with the pair discussing various topics with the occasional stop at Tuscan locales.
But about halfway through, they arrive at a café and Miller steps out for a while. The manager then enters a conversation with the woman about how hard it is to put up with husbands. The woman doesn’t correct her, and she amusingly recounts the exchange to Miller where he replies, “Obviously we make a good couple.” Seems like a cute moment until the realization dawns…why wouldn’t they be married? There was nothing in the previous hour that necessarily barred that possibility, though their behavior would have been slightly odd if true.
Before we have enough time to ponder this for very long, the two begin to overtly act like long-married couple that has drifted apart. What just happened?! Are these two strangers now pretending to have known each other for years? Or perhaps it’s the other way around and they were simply being coy and awkward after a long separation? Or, maybe (and this would not be unusual for a man of Kiarostami’s trademark reality-bending), in the middle of the story, these two characters suddenly transformed into completely different people.
Such a premise is an unquestionably too-clever-by-half, programmatic highbrow contrivance that is oh so much fun to experience! The obvious gimmick is presented in a buoyant, lived-in manner from Kiarostami, so what may at first appear like a droll college thesis on paper ends up being more like the kind of enjoyable intellectual banter you had with your roommates in college. The conceit also warrants – no, demands – multiple viewings, as just about every interpretation that I could think of revealed their own exciting truths about what was presented on screen.
But the film is also just as emotionally stirring as an honest and accessible study of romantic uncertainty. Despite their ambiguous identities, I never felt anything less than a deep affection for both James and the antiques dealer. The central question of whether or not they are married is never resolved, because it ends up being entirely beside the point. This is what makes Certified Copy truly great; its heart elevates a subject seemingly catered for eggheads and attunes it to common anxieties about long-term relationships that anyone can relate to.
The result is nothing short of a masterpiece, easily the director’s best work since Taste of Cherry. It is simply wonderful how superbly fluid the delineation of a metafilmic puzzle into a romantic fable becomes so involving here that I hardly realized that the film I started watching was completely different from the film I ended up with. Kiarostami’s superb direction and script understand that no matter how tricky your film’s underlying themes are, the emotions driving them must be played straight. That this genuine feeling is within a story that calls into question the very authenticity of art makes it all the more remarkable.
But even if none of that interests you, Certified Copy also showcases one of the most outstanding performances of the year. Juliette Binoche, with her beaming and rich emotional sincerity a perfect counter to the headiness of the film’s premise, draws out an astonishingly layered, wholly compelling nameless woman. She leaves enough room open for any interpretation of their relationship while never dulling the specificity of her desires and frustrations, all while navigating through three languages and even layering those with subtle, revealing dialects for each. It is no surprise at all to me that she won the Cannes Best Actress Award for this performance last year and she ought to be at least an Oscar nominee if not an outright winner. I should not leave out Shimell, either, who draws a more rigid character but still infuses him with clear feelings and a lifetime of experiences.
Unfortunately, it appears as though critics groups either weren’t as enraptured by Certified Copy as I was or they simply have fallen into the shortsightedness of awards season. Of the precursors announced so far this month, the only mention the film has received is a token Best Foreign Language Film nomination from the WAFCA. We’re now at the cusp of the BFCA ballot deadline and winners announcements from the New York Film Critics Online, the Boston Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and this coming week SAG and the Golden Globes will announce their nominations. While I am certainly not arrogant enough to believe that this review alone will dramatically improve its recognition (though the recent grassroots success of #TeamMargaret is certainly inspiring), I can at least hope that one of these groups remembers this amazing movie and make my own plea to the others, however small, for Certified Copy and Binoche’s performance to get some sort of year-end accolades.