Film Review: Certified Copy

Abbas Kiarostami deconstructs the cinematic art form in this cerebral but dialogue-heavy film featuring a luminous Juliette Binoche.

Abbas Kiarostami’s films have long toyed with dramatic structure, but in Certified Copy, the tale of a man unaffected by the attentions of a beautiful woman, that deconstruction is aimless and self-indulgent. Through improvisational dialogue, the Iranian filmmaker explores his recurring device of involving viewers so that the movie becomes their experience, rather than a work of art which reflects it. Kiarostami’s conceit is that his disruption of narrative structure and cinematic convention overturns the idea of artistic authenticity and uniqueness, and allows the audience to more directly experience events unfolding on the screen. But the stilted conversations between the actors diminish human emotions, the fulcrum of dramatic structure. Like a philosophical treatise, Certified Copy may spur academic debate, but it lacks the immediacy and finite experience of cinema because much of what it is about lies outside that sphere.

The movie opens with a shot of a speaker’s podium, and a table upon which the book Certified Copy is prominently displayed. The author, James Miller (opera star William Shimell), on tour in Tuscany, has not yet arrived for his lecture. Our perspective is that of the audience who awaits the speaker and his talk on the inherent value of forged works of art. In the audience is the unnamed female character, an art dealer played by Juliette Binoche. Finally, Miller arrives, but it turns out that listening to him is only slightly more interesting than staring at his book. Fortunately, we are soon pulled from the lecture when Binoche realizes she must feed her teenage son. The film then moves to a café and a rather improbable conversation, dotted with sexual innuendo, between mother and son. Later, Miller and Binoche meet at her shop, which is stocked with copies of famous sculptures. After a few awkward moments, they depart for a drive to another picturesque Tuscan town.

As the afternoon unfolds, Binoche attempts to engage Miller through rhetoric, flirtation and guilt, the latter brought on by an exchange in which we learn that the author may be her son’s father, and that she may once have been married to Miller. In fact, the entire film may have been inspired by Kiarostami’s encounter with Binoche, who says she went to Tehran at his invitation. Binoche is ravishing, yet her emotions are wasted, not just on the aloof man beside her, but on this movie which undermines classic structure to the point that the acting is provocative rather than illuminating. Late in the film, when Binoche lies across a bed and imagines her wedding night, she’s so alluring that you think something might yet happen. It doesn’t. Reading the philosopher Jacques Derrida—the founder of Deconstruction—is riveting in comparison to viewing Kiarostami’s film. Watching Binoche, on the other hand, is better than both.