Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy—the first truly great film of the year—has been called a departure for the Iranian director whose previous films have seemed so rooted in the political and social milieu of the Middle East. In what would appear to be a mischievous shift of gears, Certified Copy stars French icon Juliette Binoche and English opera singer William Shimell and is set in Florence. A seemingly “light” film for Kiarostami, whose earlier films like Close Up (1990) and Taste of Cherry (1997) dealt with suicide and identity theft? Perhaps his “take” on the European art film? I shuddered to read the brief summary of the film advertised by OnDemand: an “enchanting romantic drama about two strangers who fall in love on one luxurious day in gorgeous Tuscany.” Those who have seen the film will know that this description is woefully misrepresentative and potentially erroneous; those who haven’t seen the film should be assured that whatever gear-shifting Kiarostami is doing in Certified Copy, he certainly hasn’t shifted into flirty romantic comedy territory.
There is humor here, to be sure, but it’s a prickly humor: just as Close Up’s head games spun so far out of control that they became absurdly funny, the comedy here derives from the mysterious conversation between two people whose relationship we simply cannot establish. A man and a woman spend an afternoon talking as they wander through a European city. The premise sounds like Linklater’s Before Sunset. But who is this man, this woman? He is, apparently, an art historian promoting the translation of his latest book—a theoretical treatise that champions reproduction over originality—into Italian. She is, apparently, an art collector who has agreed to show him around Florence. They stop for coffee and the owner of the café mistakes them for husband and wife; Binoche’s character plays along. And then the game keeps going, as the two rehearse a series of marital squabbles—or perhaps it isn’t even a game. Was the game their pretending to be strangers? As with the art objects viewed and discussed throughout the film, we can’t sort out the original from the copy, reality from artificiality. And as the historian has already pondered: does it matter that we establish which is which, so long as what we see before us gives us pleasure?