There are no immutable truths in art, as in life or love – subjective in all ways especially regarding perspective. As the film opens, James (William Schimell) discusses his new book that considers this view. A copy of a work of art has worth, as it can be carefully crafted, beautifully made, and ultimately leads us back the original. One work of art, placed in a museum, is an example; a brilliant forgery of a section of fresco, its origin remained undetected for centuries, and so over time it was considered as great as its source. Elle (Juliette Binoche) attends the book discussion and is intrigued by this author. They meet over coffee, just for a few hours as he needs to be back at the train station for departure. They argue the merits of authenticity in ways that are literate and bleed over into philosophy and personal issues. Elle’s son is present at the book discussion, and their combative relationship gives a hint that the goalposts are about to be moved. When this occurs, Certified Copy becomes a different story entirely. This shift is not meant to logically ‘work’, but to change our perspective, first subtly, then seismically in this thoughtful film.
It is impossible to discuss how this works in Certified Copy without thorough spoilers, so it would be best to see this remarkable film before reading anything that critics babble about. There does not appear to be a puzzle to decipher, nor a sensible plot to follow – director Abbas Kiarostami has something else in mind. This is a free-flowing film about how our intellectual and philosophical ideas intrude on relationships, and how time changes those relationships. Elle and James at first appear to be flirting, though she with greater aplomb than he. His is a reserved way, his intellectual ideas stacking together in ways that eventually appear to be cushions against emotional involvement. When it becomes clear that they are in fact married and have been for fifteen years, this places in sharp relief her neediness against his detached manner. They bicker about his perpetual absence, the difficulty she has in raising their son, as the art conversation mutates into one of marital strife. She complains about her insolent and distant son, his impractical theorizing, and is quick to attribute any of his actions to a lack of caring. Elle is annoying and at times insufferable, but no more so than any person you would live with for a decade and a half. James is irritable and appears ready to bolt at any given moment, given to interpreting actions in fairly useless ways. Their arguments become less meaningful with time, much as most married couples will seem to event subjects over which they disagree, the real reason lying thankfully buried.
As the story progresses, and the sun begins to set, their anger dissipates in a way that portends the end. James’s detachment becomes more evident – he is going to leave her. Love has dissipated for no specific reason, as people grow apart. The train station departure becomes a final goodbye, left hanging in the air at the end as if to suggest there is no such thing as true resolution. Though the unusual narrative structure would appear to be a showy muddle, it is a way to telescope an entire marriage into a single day. The courting, the union, the differences, the finality. Such jarring shift in perspective can be helpful in seeing through the mundane; ask any divorced couple why they separated, and the explanation is unlikely to make much sense barring drug problems or physical abuse. When one dies from a thousand cuts, no single laceration stands out in memory. By focusing the hemorrhage in a single meeting, it all becomes clearer. The rapid character alterations for James and Elle translate to changes that occur over months, and makes a great deal more sense in retrospect. Even so, the things they argue about still make no sense, nor would they to any people on Earth apart from the couple trapped in the relationship. Nobody else can be expected to understand.
Another older couple are introduced during an apparently irrelevant disagreement about the meaning of a sculpture where a man protects a woman. The elderly man (who, as it is insinuated, may as well be his father) advises James that all Elle needs to be happy is his hand upon her shoulder, an easily applied symbol that he is indeed there, and cares. This is the sort of advice that is simple to give, but hard to take, the gulf between the two far beyond his reach. Earlier, James discusses the inspiration for his book, and it turns out to be a woman walking with her son, always apart. She is unwilling to wait, he unwilling to catch up; it turns out to be Elle and her boy. This at first is played as an awkward coincidence, then later an indictment of James’s distance from his own family. As the couple’s marriage ages by years before our eyes, these seemingly unrelated passages acquire greater meaning.
Certified Copy is a work of considerable wisdom, with an intangible quality you can appreciate as art, with intellectual ingredients that remain in the mind long after the credits roll. Viewers who are now or once were married can see something in themselves in the dialogue, those moments to come, and those events long passed, neither of which could have been foreseen or prevented. Or perhaps they could have been, had the union been stronger; one can never know until the memories are distant. There is a detached element to the film that does not deign to paint divorce as an evil; not all couples are meant to be. If anything, most are not. Who will your significant other be a few decades from now? An impossible question, as you have no idea who you will be by then. It is the blindest guess imaginable, and upon it our whole lives hinge. These and other thoughts come to mind after this magnificent film finished, and surely there is more to consider in Kiarostami’s elusive triumph.