Behold the most misleading trailer of recent memory— sweeping music, corny intertitles and seemingly romantic dialogue (which is ostensibly out of context)— brought to you by Sundance Selects, the American distributor of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. If you were to buy a ticket to see this film, which you thought could be just like another romantic comedy starring Diana Lane in a small Italian town, you would be in for a rude awakening, albeit a potentially rewarding one. While love is one of the central topics in Kiarostami’s first dramatic feature outside of Iran, Certified Copy is certainly a much more intellectually stimulating movie than its trailer full of clichés suggests.
I wonder if Kiarostami and Sundance Selects were actually in for the joke. For starters, the film’s basic premise screams rom-com out loud— an antique dealer (Juliette Binoche) meets up with an English writer (William Shimell), serves as his tour guide in the Tuscany town, then they get mistaken as a married couple but the pair decides to play along for the rest of the day. Pretty standard romance, you think? Perhaps the film’s verbose nature led you to imagine this could be a middle-aged version of Before Sunset? Wrong and wrong again. As much as I adore the aforementioned Richard Linklater film, Kiarostami galvanizes the otherwise pedestrian idea to a level that even well-honed indie filmmakers would never attempt. After all, trickery is an integral part of the film. So why shouldn’t it be extended to its promotional trailer?
The film takes its title from the book that Shimell’s character, James Miller, is presenting. Miller’s book argues that the value of a well-made replica is no less than that of the original artwork (as his editor’s alternative title states, “Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy”). Using art as a starting point, Kiarostami extends this debate concerning the concept of originality and authenticity to other aspects of life and culture as the film progresses. Juliette Binoche’s character has a crush on the English writer but starts to argue about the validity of his book’s thesis during a car ride to a nearby museum. According to her, there is good reason why Jasper Johns’s Coca Cola is more valuable than any random picture of a coke bottle. But the man asserts that value is entirely subjective and has little to do with authenticity. He even questions the fallacy of originality— everything, including us as human beings, are merely copies of our ancestors.
Is cinema lying or telling the truth 24 frames per second? Such has long been in the minds of filmmakers and is most famously addressed in Orson Welles’s reality-twisting documentary F For Fake. Kiarostami is no stranger to the topic. Close-Up, his 1990 breakthrough effort, is based on the truth story of a man arrested for impersonating a famous movie director and lying to an upper-middle class family about making a movie with them. Casting the real-life defendant and complainants to reenact and continue the story in his fictional drama, Kiarostami crafts a layering narrative leaving viewers questioning the perception of truth in cinema. Certified Copy has the intention in posing the same inquiry starting from the film’s midway point after the pair decides to go along as a fake couple for the rest of the day. The film becomes increasingly mind-bending with each fight between the two— appearing more raw and intimate than the last and traces of a shared past cryptically surface.
But one must resist the temptation of trying to pin down the so-called truth. Certified Copy is not Inception— in that it is not a movie about deliberately inconclusive loose ends. Kiarostami is not asking his viewers to connect the puzzle pieces of his story together. His film itself is an interactive piece about the ideas related to authenticity that the characters argue about. Lest we forget, we are investing our real emotions in a fake couple every time we watch a fictional film. How is the persuasiveness of the film dependent on the “realness” of the couple in a work of fiction? Kiarostami’s multilayered inquiries are endlessly fascinating.
Certified Copy is playing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on 5/6 (7:00pm), 5/7 (7:00pm), 5/8 (1:00pm & 5:00pm), 5/13 (7:30pm), 5/14 (7:00pm) and 5/15 (5:00pm).