The twenty best films of the decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Truth or Dare
Keith Uhlich on Certified Copy
The first thing we see in Certified Copy—the late Abbas Kiarostami's 2010 Tuscany-shot masterpiece, and his first narrative feature made outside his native Iran—is a book, neatly propped on a table between two microphones. It bears the same name as the film, though in Italian: Copia Conforme. There are no people onscreen, though we do slowly become aware of the low murmur of an off-screen crowd.
Already, several dichotomies are apparent: human beings visually absent, but aurally present; a book and a film (two very different artistic mediums) similarly named, though in different languages. Additionally, the movie's onscreen title is in French: Copie Conforme. So when watched in English-speaking countries, the title, at one point, appears simultaneously in three dialects—French (film title), Italian (book title), and English (subtitles)—which are also the languages spoken, with estimable, interchangeable ease, by the two main performers.
The film's producer, Angelo Barbagallo, eventually enters frame, asking the audience to be patient. He’s not playing himself, though he might as well be, since his special guest (also the movie's leading man) hasn’t shown up. The look of emergent panic on Barbagallo’s face is all-too recognizable. And wouldn't it just be like Kiarostami to make a movie in which the expected characters never show? But James Miller (William Shimell), the author of Copia Conforme, does finally appear. He makes jokes about his lateness and his preference to be outside in the sunshine. (Shades of Kiarostami's own cheeky admission that he prefers films that “allow you a nice nap.”) Then he launches into a lecture about his book’s subject: the value of copies of a work of art and how a reproduction “leads us to the original and…certifies its value.” The false steers us towards the true. But is the truth contained in the “original” that Miller speaks of, or in something else? Something much more intangible?
Sitting raptly among Miller's audience is a woman credited only as “Elle” or “She” (Juliette Binoche). He gets a name. She gets a moniker, in addition to a precocious adolescent son (Adrian Moore), seen only in this and one other scene, who would rather be anywhere else. Many films—many works of art—fixate on the mystery woman as muse to a male counterpart. This would appear to be the well-worn story of Certified Copy, though Kiarostami arrives at that reveal in the inimitably tranquil style for which, by 2010, he had become well known. That's around minute 45, however, of a movie that runs one hour and 47 minutes. Up until then, Kiarostami and his two leads (who are themselves a dichotomy—Binoche a seasoned movie actress, Shimell an operatic baritone making his film debut) have led us through an apparently slow-burn romance that, even though recognizably of this particular artist, feels uncannily conventional.
There are gorgeous, sun-dappled Tuscan locations. There is a contrived time limit placed on their flirtations (Miller has to be to the station by 9 p.m. to catch his train). There is Binoche's perpetually flustered, rom-com way of speaking and acting. She is so self-consciously neurotic that Miller's forced composure often reads as goofily stilted, farcically close to constipation. You can see both of them playing their roles, in other words, to the point that their exertions clash with all the recognizably Kiarostamian touches, such as an extended discourse on cypress trees or a lengthy shot during which the car windshield captures the surrounding architecture in dizzying “which-way-is-up?” fashion. (The film is brilliantly, evocatively photographed by Luca Bigazzi.)
The topsy-turviness of that particular image hints at the way the film will ultimately upend our assumptions about Miller and She’s relationship. “Let’s talk about something else,” She says when the pair sit down for a coffee in a cafe. Binoche gazes directly into the camera, her expression so suddenly, nakedly expressive that it’s a shock to the system. Miller proceeds to tell the tale of the event, many years before, that inspired him to write his book—an encounter, at a distance, with a mother and her young son. He watched as parent and child studied a statue in a piazza (tellingly, that sculpture was a copy of a famous work of art housed elsewhere), and intuited something indescribably melancholy that has haunted him ever since.
In the course of their discussion, it emerges that She and her son were the people Miller saw. (“I wasn’t well in those days,” She says, a single tear rolling down her cheek.) Or…is She just playing along, so moved by this emotion-stoking “copy” of her own life that she can't help but see herself as its protagonist, as Miller's mysterious muse and love object? Here it should be noted that Certified Copy's genesis as a film hinged on a peculiar conversation all its own: Kiarostami is reported to have told Binoche the movie's particulars during a visit she made to his home in Tehran. He related the story as if it was something that actually happened to him, speaking of each detail with a compelling and convincing veracity. “Do you believe me?” he finally asked Binoche. “Yes,” she said. “It's not true!” he replied. Binoche burst out laughing and has said, subsequently, “To this day, I’m sure he lived this story. Just as I’m sure he didn't.”
Did and didn’t. The truth hides somewhere in that collision of being and non-being, always just out of reach. She is Miller's muse, and She isn't his muse. The revelation is a deception is a revelation is a deception, ad infinitum. It would be easy to end the tale here, in this heady swirl of ambiguity. But then the film goes further. The café’s inquisitive owner (Gianna Giachetti) takes Miller and She for husband and wife, and neither of them corrects the misconception, or maybe—just perhaps—denies its accuracy. From this point, Certified Copy becomes a study of a long-term marriage at a breaking point, though neither Miller nor She is demonstrably different (in look, in poise, in attitude) than the people we have followed thus far. They nonetheless now bear a romantic history (fifteen years worth, as they eventually tell it) that has emerged in the blink of an eye.
Are they playacting their union, or has this been the reality all along? Unlike with Binoche, Kiarostami isn't telling, and the rest of Certified Copy proceeds under this deftly slippery aura. Everything is what it is…until it is something else. At one point, Miller spots an older man (Jean-Claude Carrière) quarreling with his wife (Agathe Natanson), except he’s really arguing with a third party on his cell phone, a fact the camera composition initially obscures.
A seemingly bickering couple is actually just having technological troubles. But then, an additional meta wrinkle: we might recall that Carrière was a co-scenarist for Luis Buñuel, and that one of their most famous collaborations, 1977's That Obscure Object of Desire, revolved around a woman, played by two different actresses, whose identity constantly shifts from scene to scene, and sometimes from moment to moment. So when Carrière's character offers Miller insight into She's mindset (he believes that what She really wants is for Miller to touch her shoulder—a gentle romantic gesture), it feels like a multifaceted fourth-wall breach. It's as if Kiarostami himself is playing art-house Hitch to one of his own characters, via an onscreen avatar who, in reality, has mined similar thematic veins as Certified Copy. Is Carrière's character angel? Devil? By this point, nothing and no one is exactly as they seem. And facts, such as they are, can be as easily obscured as the moment in which Miller takes the older man's advice and touches She's shoulder…which happens after they walk behind a tree, so that the point of contact (the moment of truth) is concealed.
Masks are subsequently put on and pulled off, facades erected and demolished. In one sublime close-up, She primps herself in a trattoria bathroom while gazing directly into the camera…at a mirror that we know, even if only intuitively, is not actually there. (The lens is her looking glass. And beyond that, all manner of spectator.) When She and Miller have a fight about the restaurant's substandard service, his face contorts into exaggerated, bug-eyed expressions of irritation and anger. (We are rarely more ridiculous than when acting at extremes.) In a particularly potent moment, She rushes away from Miller into a nearby church. Miller follows her, peeks in, and backs off when it seems She is inside praying. In actuality (so she says), she just needed a place to take off her too-tight brassiere. The profane has now quite (in)appropriately meshed with the sacred.
It feels, by the time we reach the film's final location—a bed-and-breakfast at which She says the couple long ago spent their honeymoon—that we have lived a lifetime with these characters. Indeed, as they amble toward the B&B, they walk behind an elderly couple (Filippo Trojano and Manuela Balsimelli) who could very well be a vision of their future selves: hunched-over, quietly going through the motions, possibly still in love (though who, at a glance, can say for certain)? True love is as inscrutable, mysterious, and ephemeral as the scent that She insists is embedded in the pillow on the bed where she and Miller supposedly consummated their marriage. Even absent tangible evidence, you believe it exists. You have to.
But at what point is it nothing but charade? Very early in the film, She tells Miller about her sister Marie, whose favorite sound is the way her husband stutters her name: "Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma-Marie." She finds it exasperating. Miller finds it poetic and beautiful, though it's clear his appreciation is akin to the way in which he values works of art—at an intellectualized remove. ("I study them and I admire them," Miller says at one point, "but I keep my distance, too.") Now, face to face with the woman who some part of him believes to be his wife, he must contend with a deep-rooted strain of emotion as well. "Ja-Ja-Ja-Ja-James," says She, copying the artful stutter of her sister's husband. (These are the last words spoken in the film.)
Something snaps, and Miller retreats to the bathroom, leaving his impromptu immortal beloved by herself, in tears. A decision needs to be made—continue the ruse (“real” though it may be) or end the affair? The shot of Miller silently mulling over what exactly he's going to do mimics the one in which She primps herself in the trattoria. (Yet another copy, and no less genuine than any other.) Church bells ring in the distance. Miller's face lights up, though the epiphany is naturally fleeting. As Miller exits it's at least clear that something will be done. It must.
But that's not for us to witness. It's only for She and He.