Combustible Celluloid
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With: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell, Jean-Claude Carrière, Agathe Natanson, Gianna Giachetti, Adrian Moore, Angelo Barbagallo, Andrea Laurenzi, Filippo Trojano
Written by: Abbas Kiarostami
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, Italian, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 106
Date: 05/17/2010

Certified Copy (2011)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Original Spin

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After a decade's worth of experiments with video (Ten, Five Dedicated to Ozu, Shirin, etc.), the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami returns to the commercial fold, and this time with a genuine international movie star, Juliette Binoche, helping out (she also appeared briefly in Shirin). Theoretically, this could be Kiarostami's "selling out" or else his most accessible movie to date, but instead it's one of his most deliriously puzzling. Most viewers -- especially those that demand answers from their movies -- will walk away not knowing what to make of it. But if you allow more than one possibility to this scenario, it emerges as a masterpiece, and Kiarostami's best film since The Wind Will Carry Us (1999).

It starts out with an actual narrative story. English author James Miller (played by opera baritone William Shimell) is in Italy hocking his new book Certified Copy, which is ostensibly an argument about how copies are as good as the real thing; it allows people to enjoy the beauty of an artwork without the trouble of the "original" getting in the way. It also questions the very concept of "original." While he speaks about his book to an appreciative audience, an unnamed woman (Juliette Binoche) turns up. She makes a bit of a fuss trying to tame her restless son and whispering to the book's Italian translator.

All this, apparently, is an attempt to meet Miller. He agrees to go for an aimless drive with her one afternoon. She has him autograph several copies of his book, and they talk more about the concept of copies, as well as the idea of relaxing and giving into them. She shows him some favorite sites in Italy. She takes him for coffee. While he adjourns outdoors to answer his cell phone, the old lady coffee shop proprietor mistakes Miller for the woman's husband, and the woman plays along. Miller returns, they leave, and she begins addressing him as her husband of 15 years. He begins responding in the same manner.

Now, what's going on here? Are they role-playing for the rest of the film as husband and wife? Have they suddenly transformed into husband and wife, using some bit of cinema magic out of Celine and Julie Go Boating or That Obscure Object of Desire? Or were they husband and wife all along and simply pretended to be strangers? Some reviewers have attempted to answer these questions, but it all relates back to the original concept. Are they originals or copies? The old Italian coffee shop lady mistakes them for a genuine married couple, but does it matter? They have the dynamic and the emotions of a married couple. Can we enjoy them as such, even if they're not "real"?

Kiarostami keeps up this idea almost constantly in a visual sense, using mirrors, reflections, landscapes and camera movements to illustrate the idea of whether or not something is original or a copy, or better still, to demonstrate that it doesn't matter. For example, Binoche's character has Miller sign six copies of his book; the characters never bring up the point that these are copies. There is no original book, and yet all the copies contain all the same words and relate the same reading experience.

In one amazing sequence, Binoche's character spots a favorite sculpture in a town square. She explains why she likes the sculpture, but Miller says he does not, based on who the artist was. The woman tries to fight him using his own theory from the book, that the art should be based on one's perception of it, and not the artist's intent. Oddly, Kiarostami's camera never gets a good look at the sculpture in question. Instead, our characters meet up with two tourists whom Binoche's character tries to use as backup for her opinion. And yet the tourists only manage to repeat something that Binoche's character said to them earlier. Confusing? Maybe, but there are many, many layers here considering what's original and what's real, from vague ideas all the way up to concrete sculptures. Perhaps Kiarostami keeps from showing us the sculpture because it would only be a filmic representation of the sculpture, rather than the "real" sculpture.

There's a lot more here, but I'll finish by once again proclaiming my adoration for Ms. Binoche, who has grown into one of the cinema's finest actresses. (She won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this performance.) She is capable of revealing deep wells of conflicting emotions onscreen, and incapable of playing a false note. She generously works with the less experienced Shimell and finds a perfect balance. Even if Certified Copy proves too much work for many viewers to puzzle over, at least the power of Binoche's performance cuts through rational thought and plunges straight to the heart.

In May of 2012, The Criterion Collection released a pristine Blu-Ray edition, which will hopefully bring this great film to a slightly wider audience. Aside from the glorious new transfer, extras include a great making-of featurette, a new interview with director Kiarostami, and best of all, Kiarostami's second feature film The Report (1977), which has been largely unavailable for years. It comes from the best surviving material, which is still pretty scratched up. Notably, it's the only time Kiarostami worked with the Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who went on to an Oscar nomination and a career in Hollywood. The liner notes contain a thoughtful essay by critic Godfrey Cheshire.

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