Bryant Tyler’s review published on Letterboxd:
“When we fall in love we see everything as an original. Falling in love is a matter of pulling the wool over our own eyes, inflating the price of things, and then as things become more disappointing and reality sets in, we take the zeroes off the price of what we have. Maybe [at this point] access to the original is out of reach and we should be happy for a copy. After all, we are all familiar with and admire the Mona Lisa because of reproductions, not because we have actually been to see it at the Louvre.” Abbas Kairostami
“A copy is not the same thing as an original, it doesn’t have the same value, but this is not to say that we estimate the copy as value-less. [...] The value of copies is that they can direct us toward the original. I was recently at the Louvre Museum and I was filming people who were visiting the Mona Lisa. I noticed the number of ordinary people who were astonished, mouths agape, standing still for long stretches looking at the work and I wondered: where does this come from? Are these people all art connoisseurs? Are they like me? Throughout the years, we’ve seen [pictures of] this work in our school books and art history books, but when we stand before the original we hold our breath.
With regards to the film, there is a double meaning, which is if you do find a good copy - grab it and stick with it and don’t go after the original, because you won’t find it. Hence we must also think about our own possibilities, of course it is ideal to have an original, but as the bartender in the film says “the ideal doesn’t exist.” Abbas Kairostami
After years of making films in his homeland, Kairostami branched outside of Iran to film Certified Copy in Italy, with a combination of English, French and Italian. Kairostami created the film around his desire to work with actress Juliette Binoche. Kairostami cast an Opera singer, William Shimell, in his first acting role, as the lead male role opposite to Binoche. Italy is the home of the first major post-war film movement, neo-realism, which had and still has an enormous influence on modern Iranian Cinema. Italy was one of the main areas where the neo-realist cinema grew throughout the 1950s and 1960s across Europe.
Certified Copy is a film with echoes of the previous neo-realism films and explores the meaning of art and originality, framed within marriage and monogamy.
The film begins with a lecture given by James Miller, a writer and art historian who is visiting Tuscany as part of a promotional tour for his latest book, Certified Copy, on classical art and it’s reproduction. In his book, James argues that art reproductions are just as valid as the original work because it “leads us to the original and in this way certifies its value.” He believes this view leads to a greater understanding of life as well as art.
Shortly after the lecture begins, Elle, an art dealer specializing in original antiques, arrives accompanied by her young son. Her son keeps distracting her until she finally decides to leave, though she gives her number and address to James’s translator. Although Elle disagrees with many of the arguments in James’s book, she is eager to meet him and has purchased several copies of the book for him to sign. She goes to a cafe with her son and he asks her why she doesn’t want James to sign with her son’s surname.
The next day, James visits Elle at her shop, the scene could be an echo of Red Desert (1964) where Corrado visits Giuliana’s unopened business, with a similar aesthetic environment.
They journey around Tuscany, driving through the countryside, initially talking about James’s book and about the value of a reproduction and the freedom in not knowing the difference between copy and original. Elle and her sister, Marie, bought James’s book together and Elle emphasizes that Marie was the one “tickled by [James’s] book”. Elle says that Marie has a “unique view on things”, elaborating she says that Marie loves costume jewelry because “fake jewelry is just as good as the real thing. You don’t have to worry about them [and there’s] less hassle.” Elle shows that Marie and James have similar beliefs, though she contrasts them by saying that Marie is a “simple person” while James is “determined to prove the unprovable”. Elle says that Marie “doesn’t try to convince or convert anyone. She’s just living in her own little world”. James then says that he wrote his book in an aim to “convince himself of his own idea”, though Marie “seems to believe in it simply and naturally [...] I envy that”. Elle asks him “why couldn’t you just be like her then?” James responds “I’m afraid there’s nothing very simple about being simple”. Elle responds “we’re not supposed to be simple. [We’re] complex beings. And what’s the line between simple person and simple mind?” To which James responds “there isn’t a simple answer.” Elle further uses her sister as an example, saying Marie says “only idiots work hard in life. [It’s] her belief that you shouldn’t be around things that make problems. Like a gas fire is better than a real fire. [It’s] safer, easier. She’s married to the simplest man on Earth. To her, he’s the best man alive. He stammers, ‘M-M-M-Marie!’ For her, it’s a love song.” James responds “Well, I can understand that. He’s lingering over her name.” In an attempt to conclude this topic, James summarizes that “the human race is the only species to have forgotten that the purpose of life, the meaning of existence is to have fun, to have pleasure. And here’s someone who’s found their own way to do it. We shouldn’t judge them for it. If they’re happy and enjoying life then we should congratulate them, not criticize them.”
The topic of art becomes the canvas on which they paint their philosophies and belief systems, both out of frustration towards the other and to affirm to themselves that they aren’t an exception. Elle believes in the value and quality of a work’s originality. James believes that quality is subjective and malleable. They compare both Jasper Johns and Andy Worhol’s depiction of a “Coca-Cola”, to which James says “you take an ordinary object, you put it in a museum and you change the way people look at it. It’s not the object that matters. It’s your perception of it.” Marie responds “if your name is Jasper Johns, you can do that.” Though James responds “if your name is Marie, you can do that too. [... T]he way she looks at her husband changes his value.”
Elle brings James to see a painting which is paradoxically an “original copy”, which Elle lovingly brought him to because “it’s the exact illustration of the ideas [he] defends in [his] book.”
The painting was only recently discovered to be a copy from a skilled forger, though it was thought to be the original for centuries. This scene could be a homage to the opening of Bad Timing (1980).
As they journey throughout the film, they are contrasted with couples in various stages of relationships. They sit down to continue conversing at a local café.
Reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s iconic shooting style, Kiarostami shoots conversations where each person who is speaking straight on so that they appear in the middle of screen and look almost directly into the camera. This makes it appear as if the viewer is situated inside the conversation with each character addressing them directly. While this echo of Ozu’s cinema reinforces the theme of copy/reproduced art, Kiarostami also uses this technique to create an intimacy between the viewer and the characters. The camera is placed directly opposite the speaker, so that they’re talking not only to their partner but to the audience, a self-aware device that acknowledges film’s artificiality. As a result, the audience is placed with a similar intellectual dilemma as the film’s characters; what is real? Kiarostami continually draws the audience’s attention to the film’s status as a constructed work of art.
James tells her a story from five years back when he was in Florence for a conference and he saw a woman with her son that intrigued him. Elle’s reactions, quiet but concerned, suggest that she is upset or emotionally touched by the story, as if he is talking about her. She replies “sounds quite familiar,” as she begins cry. He describes how the woman and son walked, with the boy always fifty paces behind the mother. When James asks if she knew them, she replies “I wasn’t well in those days”. He asks her to comment on an event as if she were a participant, rather than a passive listener, asking “the mother had not told the boy, am I right?” It’s clear that Elle is the subject of the story.
James steps out to take a call, and Elle, switching to perfect Italian, talks with the elderly, female café owner, who mistakes James for her husband. Elle not only doesn’t correct the owner, but she tells the owner that they’ve been married for 15 years. They begin to talk on a deep level about marriage and their lives. Elle is able to have an elder pour wisdom into her, something the current generation has largely lost respect for. Elle says that he is never there because he is always travelling. He is distant. He does not care about their son. He has never bothered to learn Italian despite living here for five years. From this moment on when Elle speaks to the woman, she refers to James as her husband, with no ambiguity. They are married. She says “he’s not into languages. He’s not into anything except himself and his job.” She says “I didn’t get married to live alone. I’d like to live my life with my husband. Is a good husband too much to ask for?” The Cafe Owner responds “our lives cannot be all that bad if all we can complain about is our husbands working too hard.” Elle responds “we work also, but with moderation.” The cafe owner responds “moderation is our choice, whereas they can’t help it. For them ,not working is loke not breathing: impossible!” Elle protests “I’ve never asked my husband to stop.” The cafe owner responds “of course not. How could you? The world would simply stop.”
Then Elle returns to contrast her sister’s marriage, saying “my sister keeps encouraging her lazy husband to work.” The cafe owner says “there are exceptions.” Elle asks “don’t you think there should be a happy balance?” Cafe owner “Ideally, yes. But that doesn’t exist. It’d be stupid of us to ruin our lives for an ideal.” Then the woman leans toward Elle, blocks the camera, and whispers in her ear. Elle emiles and sheds a tear. The owner tells Elle “but mum’s the word. They don’t need to know.” What did she whisper?
Elle pauses, but then asks “but how can I put up with a husband who’s never there?” The owner responds “they’re never totally absent. He makes you a married woman. That’s what matters. At my age, you understand that. How long have you been married?” Elle says “fifteen years.” The owner asks “do you have children?” Elle says “yes, a son. It was his birthday last week. He didn’t even bother to call him.” The cafe owner tells Elle “I don’t believe that. I admire [James]. On Sunday mornings, what do most men do? They sleep in. He doesn’t. He takes you our for coffee, he tells you stories with a lot of pleasure. He looks like he’s still courting you.”
When James returns to the café and Elle’s disposition shifts back to treating James as if he is a stranger. Elle tells him the café owner thinks they’re married and he responds saying “obviously we make a good couple” and Elle is shocked; this is likely the first public acknowledgement he has given of their marriage and the first compliment in a long time. By acknowledging their relational history and dropping the facade that they had maintained up until now of being strangers, James and Elle begin to relate to each other as if they actually have been married for fifteen years. There has been so much distance between them that they behave like strangers and they have essentially been living separate lives.
James and Elle then walk down the street and Elle complains how he has “never been there” for her and her son. After this minor argument they walk into a church and encounter a young, newly married couple, who are taking pictures as a “marriage tree”, which is believed to bring good luck to the marriage. The contrast of a troubled marriage with another young couple about to embark on their marriage journey could be an echo of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927).
Talking about the young couple, James says “the sweeter [the illusion] is at the start the more bitter the taste of reality later.” James wants to speak abstractly and remain indifferent about their relationship. Elle wants to speak personally and relationally, bringing them back to connection.
They walk into a city square, peopled by tourists and other couples of various ages. In the square James and Elle get into an interpretive argument over the meaning of a statue of a man and a woman, disagreeing on the relational meaning of the sculpture with a woman resting her head on a man’s shoulder. This scene echoes the Man and the Woman arguing over a sculpture in The Last Year at Marienbad (1963). Elle searches for someone in the area to agree with her interpretation. Elle finds a couple, and after speaking with them for a moment, she motions for James to join them, which suggests to us that the strangers have complied with her reading of the statue. Elle excitedly asks the woman to repeat what she said to James. She says “the serenity on the woman’s face as she rests on his shoulder. She [gives] the impression of having someone to rely on, of not being alone.”
The two couples separate for a short walk, with the two men walking in front and the two women a few paces behind them. The older man gives James some friendly advice on how to resolve a marital disagreement with a simple gesture, the placement of his hand on her shoulder (life imitating art, the statue). He tells James “obviously you are a knowledgeable man, but you could be my son, that’s why I’d like to give you a piece of fatherly advice. I think all she wants from you is that you walk beside her and lay your hand on her shoulder. That’s all she’s longing for. But for her, it’s vital. I don’t know what happened between you two, and I don’t care. It’s none of my business. All your problems can be solved with a simple gesture. Do it and set yourself free. Don’t make things any harder.”
The couples bid farewell and go off on their separate way, and as they walk away, James puts his hand on Elle’s shoulder.
They step into a restaurant and now act as a couple, acknowledging and embracing their fifteen year marriage, though James quickly becomes angry because the waiters are absent. Elle, excited that they are connecting, excuses herself to the bathroom and puts on makeup in front of the mirror, this could be an echo of a shot in The Earrings of Madame de…(1953). Elle returns to the table and becomes angry because James forgot about their anniversary the night before and just came home to fall asleep. He replies that she should not expect them “to have the same passion for each other as that newlywed couple. Not after fifteen years.” He storms out of the restaurant. He comes back to the restaurant and makes clear his resentment, reminding Elle of when five years ago she fell asleep when driving with their son in the backseat. He asks her “why did you fall asleep? Did you fall asleep because you stopped loving our son? Had you stopped loving me?” This is his moment of transparency, he is being vulnerable with the terrible questions that have weighed on his heart. Elle avoids answering the question and James leaves the restaurant again. Soon Elle leaves as well and enters a nearby pharmacy, taking medication with a drink of water. This scene could be a homage to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) when Lucy enters a pharmacy and feints while waiting for the clerk to bring her a sedative.
There is clearly years of unspoken and unresolved conflict between James and Elle. Their marriage may have disintegrated through being established upon impulsivity and false perceptions.
After their argument, James is surprised to see Elle praying in the church. James and Elle seem to be consoled by the sight of an elderly married couple exiting a church and walking away together. They stop to sit on the steps of a pensione, which turns out to be where they spent their honeymoon night in 15 years ago. Elle enters the pensione, tells the clerk that they spent their honeymoon in room 9 and asks if they can see the room to relive memories.
James and Elle enter room 9, where Elle recalls the night 15 years ago, while James either doesn’t recall. Though their behavior has softened toward each other. Elle says “if we’re more tolerable of each others weaknesses, we’d be less alone.” Elle urges him to “stay. It’s better for both of us. Give us that chance” James replies that, as he said at the start of their day, he has to catch his train. To which Elle replies, “Yes I know….J-J-J-James”, copying her brother-in-law’s stammer which symbolizes the simple adoration he has for his wife/her sister. Elle is affirming her love for James in a moment of genuine vulnerability and showing that she just wants to return to a relationship with him. This even shows her ability to compromise, to change, as James said he admired her sister’s marriage.
James leaves the bedroom for the bathroom, where he stands and stares into the mirror. The film ends with this final shot, which ‘mirrors’ an earlier shot when Elle excused herself to visit the bathroom and she stared into the mirror applying makeup and earrings. Both shots are framed within another frame behind the bathroom window. Both bathrooms have dark green wood frames and Venetian shutters, which were closed behind Elle but are open behind James. The sound during the first shot was accordion music and this final shot the sound is church bells and chirping birds, both are sounds associated with a wedding. James stares into the mirror, looking back at himself. He could leave to continue his book tour tomorrow, or he could stay and make a change. If they repair their relationship, will it be like when they were young? Will their new relationship just be a copy, trying to imitate their original relationship? The film ends with James staring into the mirror, as Kairostami is invites the audience to reflect on the ideas.
Kiarostami uses the topic of authenticity to explore the meaning of relationships and marriage.
A relationship, even greater a marriage, is a work of art. A relationship is formed and maintained by habits, by how the man and woman treat each other and how they communicate.
Cinema is an illusory and deceptive art form, as it presents itself as a representation of reality. It is often the films that are the most blatantly ‘unrealistic’ that reach the viewer on a deeper level of almost intuitive understanding, transcending simplistic judgments about whether the film is believable or not. This relates to all great art and the idea that an artificial representation of life can convey as much power and meaning as an ‘authentic’ experience. Kiarostami’s theme of authenticity in artifice is expressed both through James and Elle’s conversations and through viewing the film itself.
The film reflects on the process of filmmaking, the film’s fictional relationship which is written to create an imitation of real relationship on screen. This asks what does this copy of relationships, which are rehearsed, scripted and presented on screen do for those in the audience? This also reflects even broader on cinema itself, how filmmakers imitate or replicate films of the past and how the process of filmmaking itself replicates reality.
The film asks if a reproduced object possess the same beauty and value as the original.
Like the question that the Ship of Theseus raises, when the ship was completely dismantled, board by board, then completely reconstructed, board by board, then the question becomes is it the same ship?