My wife and I watched Certified Copy, a beautiful film by Abbas Kiarostami with Juliette Binoche, William Shimell, last week. It’s such a rich, moving film I wanted to write about it. All you need to know about the plot is that an English author on a book tour in Italy meets a French woman, both of them art lovers, and they spend the day in a neighboring village. All the tension I enjoyed in this story came from my knowing no more than that. What follows will be my attempt to talk about this film without spoiling any enjoyment for those who have yet to see it.
The first quarter or so of the dialogue is dominated by the ideas of originality and copies. What makes an original work of art uniquely superior to an excellently made replica? What is genuine? What is false? Is there a purpose in a composition or statue that the original fulfills but the copy does not? The two look briefly at a painting that was thought to be original, but discovered to be a recent copy of much older work. She is fascinated by it and hopes he will be too, because it fits the subject of his book, which is also called Certified Copy, but he isn’t. He tries to keep his distance from art, he says. It can be dangerous. I have to wonder if he keeps this distance because he is uncomfortable with that which is truly genuine, beautiful or hopeful.
The Englishman, James Miller, brings up another idea early on, that humanity’s purpose is pleasure. People should be free to do their own thing. The woman counters by saying people have responsibilities, such as family, that need tending, and she tends her own family with a bit of irritation. At one point, he continues talking about this need for living one’s own life while she is on the phone with her son, who can’t find something. She calls her son an idiot for not looking where she is telling him to look. He’ll find it if he’ll listen to her. Though they are not talking to each other, she and James are talking about the same thing. He is looking for self-fulfillment; she is telling him she knows where to find it.
She seems to tell him again indirectly in a scene in which she disappears into a church for a few minutes. He looks in at the door and believes he sees her praying. When he asks her about it, she shrugs it off saying she was doing something else, but the church setting must be significant. She is a figure of hope, a call for self-sacrifice, and she draws him to the church (which seems to either interest or trouble him; it’s hard to tell). In the same space, an elderly couple, probably married for 50 years or more, inches across the courtyard from the church door to an inn door. They are a picture of the love and faithfulness James wants know but believes does not exist.
Now, having thought this far, I think I’ll have to turn on the spoiler alert. Sorry.
James Miller is the only named character here (James means supplanter or deceiver). That points to the idea that this film is entirely about his perception. In fact, the story appears to be about him waking up to his own life. At the beginning, he meets a fan wanting an autograph at the back of the lecture room. She’s out of focus back there, so we can’t tell who she is. But then she walks to the front of the room, and we soon learn this is the woman central to this story, the one who comes into focus as James is revealed.
He says he wants self-fulfillment, but he appears discontent with something as well. It’s probably himself. At one point, he repeatedly refuses to take a picture of some newlyweds, because he says he can’t stand the look of hope in their eyes. He says he still loves his wife, but that love can’t look happy and joyful like theirs does. He observes that a tree loses its leaves to fruit, then loses its fruit too, but is there no love in a wintered orchard? Lasting love like the newlyweds hope to have is an unattainable ideal. Why should we waste our lives on the unattainable? At least, that’s what he argues. The elderly couple at church argues against that.
At the end, while the church bells are ringing vespers, James stares at himself in a mirror (which is directly into the camera) and appears to question his life. Is he wasting his life on an ideal, which is the unattached life of personal gratification? Is happiness best defined by ourselves in isolation? Or does love, among other ideals, bring with it responsibility which requires sacrifice?