Nick Vass’s review published on Letterboxd:
After giving a lecture on his new book, "Certified Copy", British author James (William Shimell) offers a potent idea on artistic credibility. He ponders on why a reproduction is not of the same value as an original—but more vitally, how the question of originals and copies are able to be illustrated in further directions.
It's safe to say that Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has stimulated the brain in those directions. Like a more cerebral Journey to Italy, his gorgeously sun-decked Tuscany is reworked as a conversationalist piece as high-strung antique-shop owner Elle (Juliette Binoche) and James tour the countryside, local galleries, cafés and museums.
They talk about art, happiness and the nature of existence. Straightforward, right? Two middle-aged strangers are in an apparent chance encounter as they stroll the cobblestones of Tuscany. The first intriguing development is that a waitress assumes they're a married couple.
Or are they? Have they met before? These two strangers? Or are they two perfect strangers?
The next fascinating development is a statue in the village square. The woman serenely rests her head on the man’s shoulder—leading to a heady discussion, on the primary truth about both sexes. After a meal in which James is upset with the wine, he and Elle gradually fall into the marital roles the waitress had assigned them.
Let's just say that Certified Copy pulls a seismic shift that made me retroactively appreciate what came before it. This idea is one that spawns so many multifaceted layers and Kiarostami turns it into a captivating jigsaw puzzle. Could it be that Elle and James were playacting their initial meeting in the first half and the second half is how they're feeling the emotional strain of a 15-year "marriage"? That's what I managed to gather from it.
Whether you're on-board with its ambiguous interpretations or not—one result is certain, this film is a metaphysical labyrinth that pointedly challenges ideas and does so with strong formal elements.
Some of those elements are in the deep focus (with clever usage of windows, mirrors, reflections and bells which doubly distort the environment) while utilizing Elle and James to be in a walking pattern that is out of sync with one another. That latter point is referenced in a story that Elle said to James in the beginning of the film about her son. Examples like that are where its more enigmatic surfaces lie. I'd even take a stab that Kiarostami's own film-making methods are like a "copy" of the European art films in which he's tried to emulate.
In addition, there's Juliette Binoche's shapeshifting performance which veers from irrational, fierce and bitter—but yet, is able to retain a compassionate warmth. Alongside her graceful counterpart William Shimell, they don't just possess impressively multilingual moments with one another (in French, Italian and English) but show how these two people can be strangers, lovers and rivals all at once.
I can only see this being more richly rewarding on another viewing. I do wish the emotional center was more ably balanced with its brain tickling brilliance. Still, there's much to digest in a work that is lovely and mysterious in equal measure.