Games People Play
Nadine Zylberberg on Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy

Well into Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, we arrive in the bathroom of a Tuscan trattoria. In a single take, a woman applies red lipstick before a mirror, which also happens to be the camera and, by extension, the audience. She dabs it with her fingers, and later with a tissue: too bold for a Sunday afternoon. The sound of an accordion outside grows louder. She turns to look through the thick slats of the window behind her before rushing back to the mirror with renewed enthusiasm. She smiles, and tries on a couple of chandelier earrings before opting for a white pair. Finally, she tousles her hair and returns to her dinner companion. Back at the table, she sits in a straight-on, medium-close-up shot. She fills the frame in what seems like a screen test, nervously awaiting her cue.

The woman is played by Juliette Binoche, and she expresses such a range of emotions that we cannot be sure what her endgame is. She won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her role, an honor that recognizes her ability to captivate an audience even in a performance that keeps shifting and changing registers before our eyes.

At no point in the film are we told the woman’s name; the credits identify her only as “Elle.” As an isolated moment, her bathroom primping can be seen in one of two ways: either she is preparing to perform or preparing to seduce. Or perhaps there’s a third option: the preparation is a performance unto itself. Even in the context of the movie, the circumstances are unclear and remain so. Here, in the confines of a restaurant bathroom, emerges a question that permeates the entire film: Can we draw a distinction between performance and authenticity?

The movie begins in a different Tuscan town, at a talk with English author James Miller (William Shimell) about his book, which has the same name as the movie. His preferred title would have been “Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy.” The crux of his argument is that in art a fake can lead one to appreciate the essence of the original. Elle sits in the audience, before exiting prematurely to tend to her restless son. She leaves a note with the event’s organizer, presumably with her contact details on it. James agrees to meet her on Sunday morning at her antique shop. So far, it reads like the natural story of two middle-aged singles who share an interest in art’s philosophical questions and perhaps an interest in, or openness to, each other.

The rest of the movie seemingly takes the form of one long conversation. Elle drives James to a nearby town that is home to a beloved counterfeit painting as well as a popular wedding site. Over the course of the day, interactions between James and Elle sometimes seem like those of strangers and at other times those of a weary couple 15 years into marriage. Certified Copy—Kiarostami’s first film made outside of his native Iran—deals with the issue of counterfeit versus original as it pertains to human relationships as much as art. Kiarostami has elaborated upon these themes before: in Close-Up, his docu-fiction about a director and his impersonator, and Through the Olive Trees, which follows a man and woman on and off the set of a movie. Certified Copy is the first to feature an international star as the vehicle for these narrative inquiries. The film’s true nature never fully reveals itself: are James and Elle strangers pretending to be lovers, growing closer in the process? Or are they lovers, hoping that playing strangers will cure their marital woes? As far as the film’s message is concerned, both are conceivably true. Another question, though, arises: is acting married the equivalent of being married?

The viewer is tasked with figuring out if originality exists not just in one relationship but also in all relationships. Over the course of the film, the skeptic’s eye wanders from Elle’s expressive face to a couple of newlyweds fresh out of a church ceremony to a sculpture in a fountain, seeking authenticity anywhere. The power of Juliette Binoche’s performance is that, embodying this nameless “Elle,” she both knowingly performs and seems genuine.

When James and Elle first begin their simulated marriage (or their sincere one, depending on your reading), it is through bickering that the viewer might become convinced that their relationship is plausible. At a café, she asks him about the inspiration for his book. He tells her the story of a mother and son he noticed in Florence. The interaction grows intimate when he mocks her English grammar. Soon after, she tears up. His story seems to be about her and her son. When James steps outside to take a call, the café’s proprietress muses: “He’s a good husband.” Elle does not correct her. Instead, together they paint a picture of the typical working husband—two nameless women building a character out of James, who remains in view throughout, hovering in the frame beyond bottles of olive oil, the white window frame, and the potted plants. In this carefully constructed, artificial frame, Elle becomes a performer, using her hands, her eyebrows, and her pouted lips to become a more animated version of herself.

Outside the café, the couple keeps up the charade. Walking down a cobblestone street, she impatiently barks at her son on the phone, asking James if he can talk better sense into “their” kid. Then they argue over breakfast: he is purportedly never present and she is always in a foul mood. The back-and-forth ends with her addressing him as mon chéri. The term of endearment is tacked on following a brief pause, as if an afterthought. And it stands in clear opposition to their prior argument, both in tone and as the first words she utters to him in French, her native (authentic) tongue. Something real seeps through the cracks of their facade.

Binoche grounds the film. She is profoundly human; she is messy. She loses her temper; her lines feel improvised at times. It’s a marked departure from Kiarostami’s previous female characters. Binoche is a star, and brings that magnetism with her to Certified Copy. She’s a chameleon, shifting between fierce and sensitive, aloof and fully present. The binaries are extreme, but she weaves in and out with such grace that it’s easy to embrace her every nuance.

The viewer learns more about the married couple as references to the past creep in, most of which James has trouble remembering. At one point they enter the hotel room where they allegedly spent their wedding night, though he has no recollection of the place or the view outside the window. Ultimately, the question is not which scenario is counterfeit, but whether or not it matters in constructing the image of marriage. James and Elle share a history, real or imagined. If, as James’s speech lays it out, the work of a copy is to get to the essence of the original, then there might be no difference at all between the two.

Binoche negotiates this idea earlier in the film, when she offers to drive James. Once in the car, each grasps for ways to fill the silence. Kiarostami is a master of car scenes; in films from Taste of Cherry to Ten, he turns the vehicle into a confessional booth of sorts—a private haven in an otherwise public space. Here, the car leaves no room for openness. Filming first from outside the front windshield, Kiarostami creates a private, almost claustrophobic enclosure. Over the course of ten minutes, the conversation shifts from cordial to familiar, and back again. As they take off, Elle addresses him as an object of admiration. “I can’t believe you’re sitting in my car, I mean it,” she says. He signs copies of his book, she explains how she came across it in the first place, and they discuss the simplicity of her sister, Marie. It is not long before she comes to resent James’s allegiance with Marie. Elle harps on the topic: “We’re not worms, right? We’re not supposed to be simple.” She grows more resolute in her stance against him, and in favor of originality—or at the very least, complexity, which Binoche undoubtedly brings to her character.

Binoche offers no quips or zingers; her conversations are monotonous and drag on, one melting into the next. Yet she has something of the charisma of Katharine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib or The Philadelphia Story; as in those films she’s very much playing and performing the game of marriage. The waitress at the café, the young newlyweds, and the older couple who appear over the course of the film are all spectators. The performance, however, doesn’t seem to be for them as much as it is in spite of them. Even in private spaces, such as the hotel bedroom in the final scene, James and Elle seem to alternate between friends and strangers. It is left up to the spectator, picking up verbal and gestural cues, to declare the fact of marriage.

Words here reflect the relationship itself, which isn’t moving forward so much as somersaulting in mid-air. We can’t quite picture Elle and James as newlyweds, nor can we see them growing old together. A linear trajectory is tossed out in favor of a winding journey with no start or finish. And it’s through Binoche—her voice, her gestures, her gaze—that we find peace in questions unanswered.