No one films two people talking inside a car like Abbas Kiarostami.
Two of the internationally renowned (and popularly ignored, generally) Iranian director’s previous films — Ten and Taste of Cherry, which won the Cannes Palme d’Or back in 1997 — spend basically every minute of their running time marking time spent making chatter behind the wheel of cars driving more or less without aim.
If Kiarostami’s characters meander physically between thoroughfares and side streets, their philosophical journeys while commuting are far more profound and far-reaching.
In Taste of Cherry, a man attempts to convince three separate passengers (none of whom know him) to bury him after he commits suicide.
In Ten, a woman talks freely in her car with her passengers, and one gets the sense that her car is actually her sanctuary, the one place where she can be both in the public eye and in a completely private environment.
And now, in Certified Copy, Kiarostami’s first international production and also the first boasting an A-list international star, his characters actually reach a destination and leave their car. But that’s when the interpersonal byplay gets complicated.
The intellectually flexible Certified Copy stars Juliette Binoche as a serene but latently dissatisfied-seeming single (?) mother who runs an antiques store in the Tuscany region of Italy. She drops in on a talk being given by an esteemed British author, James Miller (a believably stilted William Shimell), whose latest book, which (in typical Kiarostami puzzle box fashion) is also the title of the film, questions the need to hold “original” works of art over forgeries and copies.
His suggestion is that, in most cases, the original is itself a copy of something else that inspired the artist, and that each work of art is also, conversely, an original piece, even if it attempts to match another work of art stroke for stroke.
Binoche’s unnamed character takes exception with a number of points in his book, and invites him to take a trip to a nearby village with her to discuss her qualms at greater length. He’s both bemused and condescending at first, but gradually warms up to her challenges.
And then there comes a strange twist in the narrative, one that in its own way recasts the entire movie as Kiarostami’s Mulholland Drive, his F for Fake. While sipping cappuccino, a barista confuses the two for a married couple, and with nary a beat, the two embrace their new relationship history, seeming to create an entire history for themselves.
In other words, a copy.
I don’t want to give away much more beyond that, but suffice it to say that the movie’s own transformation elegantly and effectively turns Miller’s book into a test case scenario while, at the same time, calling into question everything that’s being represented. It doesn’t take long before one starts to wonder if the initial meeting isn’t part of the fabrication. And the entire time you’re sorting out the details, Kiarostami is rewarding you with beautiful moments, like the shot of Binoche excitedly applying lipstick and testing out different earrings in a trattoria bathroom.
Certified Copy deals with the deviation between original and copy, but the film itself is a radical fusion between the Brechtian overtures of Kiarostami’s early works and a more self-evidently graceful form of artful trickery. It is nothing short of a masterpiece.