Certified Copy

Certified Copy
July 18th 2023

Though the advent of AI has breathed new life into the conversation, humans have always been obsessed with distinguishing the real from the fake. It’s a fixation that fascinated Abbas Kiarostami for most of his storied career, as his films often sit boldly astride the perceived border between the fictional and the true, provoking characters and viewers alike to ask daring questions about the value of authenticity and, more surprisingly, love.

Kiarostami always understood that love is actually a central element to the dilemma of the real. It is often argued that an imitation is born out of love toward the original, but can we love something even if we know it’s fake? Nowhere are these questions tackled more directly than in Certified Copy (2010).

Set in Tuscany, the film opens with a British writer, James Miller (William Shimell), accepting an award for his book, whose title lends its name to the film, which argues that a reproduction is as valuable as the original artwork. It’s a daring claim, one that a French antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche), would like to discuss further, in private.

The two travel to a nearby town, where they spend the day talking and walking along cobblestone alleys, discovering small museums and old churches. The conversation flips constantly from flirtatious to accusatory and back, as they seem to both be equally charmed and exasperated by each other’s company. It’s a behavior so universally characteristic of married couples that a local woman assumes they are one based on their body language alone. It’s a telling observation that the film delights in proving one moment and dispelling the next, causing us to wonder if they are two strangers acting like an old married couple or vice-versa.

In the hands of another director, this might seem like a cruel game to play on an audience, but as we watch Shimell and Binoche masterfully switch from seduction to bickering, surrounded by newlywed couples posing for happy portraits, their willful self-delusion and desire to perform the role of a couple in love, comes off as genuinely human—if there’s any value in that.

In Kiarostami’s first fiction feature produced outside of his native Iran, the carefree Tuscan sunshine does a lovely job of masking the film to seem more aesthetically in line with Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), or even Linklater’s Before trilogy (1995–2013) than the director’s previous work. Nonetheless, Kiarostami’s fingerprints remain visible, most notably in his affection for filming characters as they drive and his occasional refusal to obey the shot/reverse-shot convention; reminders that our curiosity will not be indulged and that a lot of what we wish to see will deliberately stay off screen.

This withholding is characteristic not only of the cinematography but the plot as well. And while this may be maddening at times, it is all for a worthy cause, for if we allow ourselves to stop being so preoccupied with what's real and what's fake, we can ask ourselves the far more interesting question: If it brings us pleasure, does it matter? With its own striking forgeries of real life, Certified Copy answers that query with a resounding No.

Certified Copy screens tonight, July 18, at the Museum of Modern Art in 35mm as part of the series “A View from the Vaults 2023: Films in 16 and 35mm.”