“There’s nothing very simple about being simple,” intones writer James (William Shimell) early in Certified Copy. Here’s a film that knows it. After a decade making quasi-documentaries, Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry) returns to narrative cinema with a film that is, in fact, simple, if deceptively so. Two strangers—James and a French antique dealer billed only as “she” (Juliette Binoche)—wind up spending a lazy afternoon together in Tuscany. They chat; they debate. So far, so Before Sunrise. At the 45-minute mark, a barista mistakes them for spouses. They play along. Then they start bickering as though they’ve been married for 15 years. And for the rest of the film, the facade barely drops.
The question is: Which is it? Are they strangers pretending to be longtime marrieds? Or longtime marrieds who, for some reason, initially pretend to be strangers? These are the wrong questions. For starters, neither possibility holds up to scrutiny. “In character” (or not!) “she” complains that James never bothered to learn her language, only to be startled when he busts out some Français. On the other hand, she carps that he only shaves once every two days, a specific detail later confirmed. The solution, then, is that there is no solution—just as it was in another, older European art film mindfuck (and obvious inspiration), Last Year at Marienbad. Our two leads are genuinely strangers and later genuinely longtime marrieds, then possibly back again.
Accepting this illogical position, no matter how unnatural the feeling, frees us to dwell on the heady ideas bouncing around. The question of authenticity is the most enticing. (After all, these are actors, or to put it another way, copies.) But it’s also the most facile. Better to focus on, among other subjects, its radical notion of intellectualization versus sensation. This is a film that asks us to accept an insane setup as presented—to not think, that is—while also demanding we unravel its dense thoughts on art, on copies, on performance, on the fluidity of personality. Certified Copy is richer than a mere mindfuck, promising to be a different film on each viewing, changing whenever you look at it from a new angle.