I sincerely hope that multi-national productions can be submitted for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar, because even though the year is young, competition is already fierce thanks to the French-Italian-Belgian co-production that is Certified Copy. The film, which includes dialogue in French, Italian, and English, picked up strong reviews at last year's Cannes Film Festival, in addition to a Best Actress prize for Juliette Binoche. Finally seeing the film, almost a year since its Cannes bow, I'm glad to say that both sets of accolades were richly deserved.
Opening in Tuscany, the film begins with writer James Miller (opera singer William Shimell) at a signing for his latest book, which argues that copies of original artwork are every bit as valuable as the original. Soon after, he stumbles into a dimly lit collection of artwork owned by Elle (Juliette Binoche). Tired of being stuck in hotels and conference rooms, James suggests they get some fresh air, and Elle decides to drive the pair to the nearby town of Lucignano. While there, a woman mistakenly refers to James as Elle's husband, and Elle never corrects her.
And once this happens, and the level of casual mystery enters Abbass Kiarostami's film, the film picks up considerably. Its opening moments can feel lagging and even tedious, if anything because it feels like a cousin of Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, only without the youth, vitality, or inherent charm. Kiarostami's film is considerably less romantic and much more melancholic, and this can be off-putting initially. However, the more time the pair spend together, the more quietly engaging the film becomes. Its pace never quickens, yet thanks to the sharp contrast in its characters, the material and subject matter, which could have easily become wildly pretentious, becomes something special, even if it can be a bitter experience.
As James and Elle continue their conversations, some meandering, some pointed, what starts out as a conversation on art evolves into a conversation on life, specifically the relationships between men and women, and their perceptions of the world. However, none of this would be worth it, though, without a compelling 'couple' at the center. This is where Certified Copy starts to get interesting, for better and for worse. To be clear, I have no complaints about Binoche, who is absolutely radiant throughout. Like the film, she grows more and more complex as the film progresses. She mixes emotional outbursts with restrained moments of sadness and anger under pressure, and masterfully executes a handful of crying scenes by barely crying at all. Her ability to emote so fluidly, in three languages no less, is impressive and rewarding to behold. Unfortunately, her acting partner is not quite as consistent. Despite a compelling, sonorous deep voice, Shimell can come off as either stiff or overly dramatic. The opera star's tendency to sprinkle his dialogue with pauses can sometimes come off as detrimental to the film's more free-flowing, casual style. It works in scenes with more heightened drama, specifically a fight at an otherwise empty Italian eatery. Yet compared to his co-star, it's hard not to feel ever-so-slightly let down by the realization that Binoche's primary acting counterpart can't always match her. The film also has a tendency to linger too long on shots, namely the almost agonizingly long opening credits.
Even so, it's hard not to be impressed with the way Kiarostami weaves his simultaneously simple and complicated story of a man and a woman testing the limits of their relationship over the course of a day. It can be meandering, and in spots a little unsatisfying, but it's hard to deny the overall strength of the director's latest. It may lack the feel good romanticization of similar films, but makes up for it with astute writing and a good deal of superb acting. It's not a perfect film, one that teeters between being 'very good' and 'great,' but at its best, it is unquestionably a work of art, regardless of how many copies of it exist.