Cannes 72 Countdown: Certified Copy

This review first appeared on Filmotomy.com.

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We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.

Certified Copy (2010) Prix d’interprétation féminine – Juliette Binoche

Certified Copy is tricky. It’s simultaneously its own unique endeavor and also a replica of masterworks that have come before it. Two people have illuminating conversations in European locales for almost the entire run time? Richard Linklater’s “Before” films. Two presumed strangers have a deep personal bond? Wong Kar-Wai’s work. A deceptively complex narrative puzzle masquerading as a simple story? Any 1960s Mediterranean auteur picture.

For such a seemingly unassuming film, there are interpretations aplenty among viewers regarding these two protagonists. Are they truly strangers? Are they actually a married couple the whole time? Are they a married couple pretending to be strangers, or vice versa? Are they both strangers and a couple of fifteen years, unbound by time and space a la Kurt Vonnegut—making this a clandestine science fiction film?

The two characters are an English writer named James Miller (William Shimell) and an unnamed French antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche). Her character’s name is never spoken, so she’s often referred to by the feminine pronoun Elle. Miller is in Tuscany to promote his new book asserting that, in art, a fake is just as significant as the real thing; he claims that everything is an homage to something, anyway. Elle attends his lecture, and leaves her information with his translator.

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Miller shows up at her antiques store, but he has no interest in looking at her goods—authentic artifacts, not facsimiles (a keen detail), from the past. They decide to spend the day exploring the area instead, with Elle as his guide. Their day largely consists of discussing the existential points in Miller’s book—illustrating the central theme, or question, of the film itself: whether an original truly has more meaning than a perfect imitation.

Binoche views Certified Copy as a comedy. She interprets the connection of the two characters as a relationship in fast forward. In her eyes, they are strangers when they meet, but by the end (roughly 90 minutes later) they have a son and have been together for fifteen years, though it’s only been a day on screen.

On paper, Elle may read as neurotic, existing in multiple states at the same time. There’s a reason for why she’s somewhat erratic, why her mind veers from emotion to emotion so suddenly. It’s because Elle, by the nature of the film, must be able to exist on many planes concurrently. The film works—and there are so many theories as to what the hell is actually going on—thanks in large part to Binoche’s brilliant performance.

Binoche is key. Her approach to the material is naturalistic and precise. She manages to be her usual stunning, compelling self without derailing Kiarostami’s minimalistic handling of the film. As a director, Kiarostami is fond of long takes, a technique that lends a true-to-life quality to his stories. Thus, several of the film’s vital scenes are pretty much unabridged, so to speak. It’s here that he puts his trust in Binoche to become a sort of conduit, to carry and shape the material.

She and Kiarostami had been acquaintances well before production began. He had an idea for the film in mind, and she met with him in Tehran to talk about it. He told her about a romantic encounter he’d had with a woman in Italy. A passionate story rich in detail. And Binoche believed every word. But none of it was true. Kiarostami had fabricated his own story, drawing from several classic romantic tales from the past. And that’s how Certified Copy was born.

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Abbas Kiarostami could not make this film in his native Iran. Censorship prevented him from showing adult intimacy, even emotional, of any kind. (For the record, there’s no nudity or sex in Certified Copy.) Iran’s restrictions on content in art, in 2010, were so limiting that Kiarostami had to sojourn to Europe to make an art film about emotional intimacy between a man and a woman. Because this is more than a straight-forward love story.

Certified Copy is the epitome of enigmatic cinema, without being obvious. It’s surprisingly maneuverable, allowing audience suppositions to travel in almost any given direction. And the secret ingredient is Juliette Binoche. She grounds this cerebral and loquacious film—in multiple possible realities—with her understated yet luminous performance as Elle. Juliette Binoche deservedly won Best Actress at Cannes for this master class in nuance.

Nephew Frank