Film Review: Intriguing 'Certified Copy' explores nature of originality

William Shimell and Juliette Binoche play a couple whose interaction is unusual from the start.


William Shimell and Juliette Binoche play a couple whose interaction is unusual from the start.

Two weeks ago, "13 Assassins" became the first of the more than 80 feature films directed by Japan's Takashi Miike to earn a Memphis theatrical booking.

Friday, "Certified Copy" opens at Malco's Ridgeway Four. The movie was directed by Iran's Abbas Kiarostami, winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for "Taste of Cherry." Kiarostami generally is regarded as one of the world's most important active filmmakers, but this is the first of the 20-plus narrative and documentary features he's directed since 1970 to open in Memphis.

Are we in the midst of "Introducing-World-Famous- Auteurs-to-Memphis Month"? Perhaps, but I'd bet the presence of Juliette Binoche in the cast has more to do with the film's arrival here than any belated appreciation of Kiarostami's significance.

In Italy to promote his latest book, a middle-aged English writer meets a young French woman (Binoche) and jets off to San Gimignano with her.

Rating: No Rating

Length: 106 minutes

Released: March 11, 2011 Limited

Cast: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell, Jean-Claude Carrière, Agathe Natanson

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Writer: Abbas Kiarostami

More info and showtimes »

Most of the foreign-language and so-called art films that open in Memphis are relatively easy to digest, as long as you don't choke on subtitles.

Italy's "The Double Hour," also now at the Ridgeway Four, is an arty mystery thriller. "13 Assassins" was a samurai action film. Denmark's "In a Better World," which opened June 3 and lasted only a week, was a melodrama-with- a-message about families in crisis.

"Certified Copy" is genuinely mysterious, challenging and surprising. It will be a difficult film, for those who insist that the reality of manufactured events onscreen correspond to the apparent cause-and-effect logic of the world outside the cinema, especially when the film is presented as "realistic," without apparent supernatural events or "Inception"-like dream twists.

A French-Italian-Belgian co-production that is mostly in English, but sometimes in subtitled Italian or French, "Certified Copy" is basically a two-person film. The movie opens in Tuscany, Italy, where a handsome middle-aged British writer, James Miller (William Shimell), is giving a talk on his new book, titled (what else?), "Certified Copy," which the event's host tells us was "awarded best foreign essay of the year."

The book — and by extension, the film — is a contemplation of the idea of originality and authenticity in art; "Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy" is the book's alternate title, Miller says. (This is a longstanding preoccupation of Kiarostami's; his 1990 "Close-Up" is a partially re-enacted quasi-documentary about a man who impersonated a real-life famous Iranian filmmaker.)

Miller comments that a "copy itself has worth because it leads us to the original," and that in art, "there are no immutable truths." His ideas seem to intrigue a similarly middle-aged and attractive woman (Binoche) in the audience, who operates a shop devoted to authentic antiquities and their replicas. The next day, the woman — who is never named — and the man meet and spend a day driving in the Italian countryside, visiting several small towns and tourist attractions. The woman comments they are "just meandering around, with no goal"; viewers unsympathetic to Kiarostami's elliptical approach to storytelling will agree.

The relationship and interaction between the man and woman are odd from the get-go. As the film proceeds, revelations occur which seem to contradict what the audience thinks it already knows about the couple. Are the man and woman play-acting or role-playing? Are they actually married? Is the movie a puzzle with a solution, or is it operating with the logic of a dream?

The man and woman encounter newlyweds and old people who vaguely suggest alternate versions of themselves, copied from the past and future. Posing for pictures, the hopeful, innocent brides in their white gowns seem to rebuke the couple's bitterness. Miller — occasionally charming yet pretentious, irritable and "cold," in the woman's word — complains about his bad memory, which causes us to realize that a memory is just a degraded copy of a real life event, just as the Mona Lisa — as the man points out — is a copy of a real person, as are the actors onscreen in a movie. "After all, it might be said we are only the DNA replicas of our ancestors," Miller comments.

Because "Certified Copy" is a naturalistic film shot on location, it's easy to take its precision and design for granted. Incidental details are very important; some may be apparent only on repeat viewings. But if the film were only an intellectual exercise, its value would be diminished. It may be merely a copy of life, but in its power, mystery, confusion and emotional resonance, "it leads us to the original."

"Certified Copy" is exclusively at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

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