Certified Copy

Certified Copy begins with academic James Miller (William Shimell) giving a talk to an audience about his new book, ‘Certified Copy’. It is Miller’s theory that a copy of something can be as important as its original. His book, apparently, has not been well-received in the UK, but in Tuscany, where the film is set, the audience appears much more appreciative. After the talk, Miller is approached by Elle (Juliette Binoche), a French woman who has lived in Italy for five years. She asks Miller to meet her later at her antiques shop. He agrees, turns up at the specified hour, and asks that they spend the day out in the countryside.

Elle drives Miller to Lucigarno, a nearby town. She shows him a painting in a museum there. The painting was believed to be part of an original Roman mural, but shortly after the Second World War was found to be a 19th century fake.

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The true original is at Herculanaeum, but the museum’s copy is still treated as if it were original art. Miller is not impressed. They stop at a nearby café. When Miller steps outside to answer a phone call, the café owner quizzes Elle about her ‘husband’.

From that point on, the fictional marriage of 15 years which Elle recounts to the café proprietress slowly becomes a – if not the – truth. Miller and Elle are taken to be a married couple by everyone they meet in the town, even though they had not met before Miller’s talk. This comes to a head in a restaurant in which they stop for dinner. Their conversation references shared incidents and events from their 15-year ‘marriage’.

Elle was certainly married – she has a young son (Adrian Moore), whose phone calls throughout the day seem to drive her to distraction; but no mention is made of the father’s fate. Miller’s marital status is unknown. Neither of the two main characters are especially likeable. Miller is a smug academic, fixed on his theory. Elle takes out her frustrations on Miller, often shrewishly. She also finds Miller’s theory ludicrous – she shows him the Roman mural partly as an attack on his book, although he shrugs it off as merely ‘interesting’. It is only later when she confabulates a decade and a half of married life for the two of them that they settle into an easy familiarity. There is no ‘original’ of this union, what they have cannot be considered a copy, so this is not Miller’s theory being tested.

Yet director Abbas Kiarostami continues to confound as the film progresses. Miller initially claims not to speak Italian, although he had ‘learnt French’ – at school, it is implied. Later, he and Elle speak French fluently, and he even speaks some Italian with facility. In the café, he tells Eve a story about a mother and son he saw in Florence, and the son’s reaction to Michelangelo’s David – a copy, although the boy clearly did not know that. Eve admits that it was herself and her son. The film ends with the couple visiting the pensione where they had spent their honeymoon.

There is, of course, another layer here. Binoche and Shimell are actors. (Actually, Shimell is an opera singer and this is his first film role.) They are playing Eve and James Miller. But are Miller and Eve old friends who are playing strangers? Or are they strangers who are playing at being a married couple? Which is the original? The dialogue alone is not enough to determine which is true, and what clues are given here are often contradictory.

Sadly, the gender politics on display in Certified Copy are a little creepy. The marriage that Eve concocts/ remembers seems more 1980s than 21st century. The café proprietress with whom Eve discusses her ‘husband’ is very much old school – i.e. men love their jobs and must be forgiven for any lapses that may cause, including their occasional need for mistresses. That Eve struggles with her son is plain throughout the film, and that she puts down to the fact he is a boy.

Eve’s views on gender are as old-fashioned as the café proprietress’ – as she demonstrates in the conversation in the restaurant, remarking on how she had put on lipstick and earrings for her husband, only for him to ignore them. She complains of him being tired when she wanted sex; he complains that she is attributing ulterior motives where none exist. It’s the sort of marital banter you’d expect 30 or 40 years ago, and it feels out-of-place in a 2010 film, a film which features an independent woman making a new life for herself and her son in a foreign country.

Certified Copy is a very good film. It manages to remain a gripping drama despite having an unsympathetic cast. It occupies that grey area between truths and fictions, where stories may one or the other, or indeed both.