‘Certified Copy’ Is Cleverly Inconclusive

Certified Copy -- Dir. Abbas Kiarostami (IFC Films) -- 4 Stars


“Certified Copy” depicts an ambiguous romance between an Italian gallery owner named Elle (Juliette Binoche) and James Miller (William Shimell), a British author.

One of the first images in "Certified Copy" is of a book, "Copia Conforme," resting by itself on a table. The cover displays the visage of Michelangelo’s statue of David, gazing archly at its own face reflected in a white surface. Like this initial image, the first and second halves of "Certified Copy" address and mirror one another as enigmatically as David’s inscrutable expression. As its title suggests, the film explores the relative values of imitations and originals in art but also, more ambiguously, in life.

"Certified Copy" is Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami’s first feature filmed outside of his home country. Set in Tuscany, the film spans about half a day in the life of a couple who initially seem to have never met prior to that morning. Juliette Binoche plays Elle, a gallery owner living in Arezzo, in a flutteringly expressive performance for which she won the Best Actress prize in Cannes. William Shimell, in an impressive cinematic debut, portrays James Miller, author of the fictional book "Copia Conforme," a title whose translation serves as the film’s name as well.

Writer and director Kiarostami plays an elegant game with audience expectations in "Certified Copy." Elle and James appear to meet for the first time at a lecture where James introduces his new book. But Kiarostami soon calls into question the nature of the relationship between these two apparent strangers. As the two sit down for coffee, the middle-aged proprietress ‘mistakes’ James for Elle’s husband, and Elle does not correct her. The reality is then left to the viewer: is the truth about these two characters slowly being revealed, or are they playfully building up an imaginary relationship, piece by piece? What makes the film so remarkable is that either alternative is equally plausible. Nothing said before the turning point in the café contradicts anything that is said afterward.

The original title of James’s book is "Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy." A recurring theme in the film is that human beings are by nature inauthentic and frayed at the edges. We change inexorably with time, to the point that our current personas are essentially ‘copies’ of our conception of who we think we used to be. The same applies to our relationships, which for Miller exist as recollected constructs. Intrinsic to this conception of imitation of character and human connection is the inevitable decay that occurs from copy to copy, resulting in repeated failed attempts to recapture the past. The movie’s ambiguous love story between Elle and James thus centers upon the question as to whether the euphoria at the beginning of a relationship can ever be re-experienced. The answer depends on which understanding of the film and the relationship of its leads is taken.

Though "Certified Copy" sets itself up for any number of possible interpretations, given the self-consciously reflective nature of both its plot and imagery, it seems reasonable to infer that the first and second parts of the film are intended to perfectly mirror one another. Each half represents a counter-interpretation of the same characters and their story. Of course, a reflected image is in reality the exact reverse of what it shows. Put another way, mirror images are inversions so complete they deceive the eye into believing it perceives the original. Because of this, the film cannot be reduced to a single absolute narrative.


Rather, like the two faces of David looking at each other, Kiarostami’s work keeps its secrets to itself, but still invites speculation and admiration in equal measures. Ultimately, the meaning of "Certified Copy" is in the eye of its beholder.

—Staff writer Catherine A. Morris can be reached at