Part of the delight of Certified Copy is Kiarostami’s refusal to insist that viewers unravel the film’s secrets.
One of the more notable characteristics of Abbas Kiarostami’s work is that so many of his scenes appear to tell multiple stories at once. An expert at effectively using non-professional actors, Kiarostami allows “extras” to fill his scenes, people living their lives as his stories unfold. His camera often sits further back than those of other filmmakers, and he zooms in only when he really wants to focus on a particular interaction.
Certified Copy, Kiarostami’s 2010 Tuscany-set, French-English love story, takes the director’s love of entwined, overlapping narratives to the next level, using a couple’s shifting attitudes towards one another to raise the possibility of any number of stories unfolding. At first this is confusing, but as the story expands, it fits neatly into Kiarostami’s often-voyeuristic vision of the intricacies of daily life. Here, he makes his audience spy upon the central couple, and it’s up to each viewer to decide what they believe is really taking place, just as they would have to do if overhearing the conversations of a real couple on the street.
Voyeurism is in the DNA of Certified Copy, right down to the fact that Kiarostami is working with international stars (French actress Juliette Binoche and British opera star William Shimell) rather than his typical casts of nonprofessional actors or local Iranian professionals. Kiarostami highlights Binoche and Shimell’s already considerable magnetism, demanding that viewers watch them closely. Just as characters in the film repeatedly question whether pieces of art are originals or copies, the film itself asks if its stars are real, “normal” people. Both Binoche and Shimell are strikingly attractive, and they appear ever so slightly different than those around them.
Certified Copy is often compared to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, and there are certainly similarities; Kiarostami follows Binoche and Shimell as they talk naturally about topics large and small, personal and impersonal. But while Linklater’s films are made to feel completely natural, Certified Copy is slightly off, just as a counterfeit imperfectly compares to an original. The signs of trickery are apparent in small ways, like the dialogue switching from English to French or the film’s timeline suddenly shifting from days to years.
Though these shifts are delicate, they are not evasive. Kiarostami is aiming for thoughtfulness rather than trickery, and that distinction is part of what makes Certified Copy so delightful. Even the setting of Certified Copy is a self-referential “copy” of a typical Kiarostami setting. While the ancient Italian buildings and Tuscan countryside are similar to the Iranian setting of the director’s previous films (Certified Copy was Kiarostami’s first feature film to be shot entirely outside of Iran), the setting is noticeably different in small ways.
Like most of Kiarostami’s films, there is joy in digging into Certified Copy’s mysteries, but there is also pleasure in just sitting back and watching it unfold. Driving scenes, a Kiarostami staple, are present here, and watching Binoche and Shimell cruise through the Italian countryside is hypnotic and interesting even without considering the puzzles of the plot.
In fact, part of the delight of Certified Copy is Kiarostami’s refusal to insist that viewers unravel the film’s secrets. So many films explain away every hint of mystery, refusing to allow viewers to come up their own interpretation. Kiarostami does the opposite here, presenting a slightly warped facsimile of an excellent European romance.