Before I begin my review of 'Certified Copy' you must know that I see no way around talking about the plot of the movie in detail. There may be some spoiler-esque stuff discussed in this review. Please know that it isn't because I want to spoil the movie, but it's because the essence of the film as a whole is tied to the complex secret it holds. They really cannot be separated.
You must draw your own conclusions when it comes to Abbas Kiarostami's 'Certified Copy.' It's a curious film that's made in such a way that you don't know what to believe. Two people seemingly meet for the first time. The woman, Elle (Juliette Binoche), is a haphazard soul. She jumps from one topic to the other. She's nervous and excited, but also apprehensive. James Miller (William Shimell) is a learned man who has just finished writing a book about art. He's perfectly sure of himself. He thinks he's an intellectual and speaks in verbose lines of prose when only a few words will do. He's a justifier, and his words help him justify his actions.
The two meet in Italy while James is doing a press tour for his new book. Elle wants to meet him so she arranges a meeting. The two soon get together and, for the first 30 minutes or so, seem cordial enough with each other. They stroll around the streets of Italy engaging in purely organic conversation. It reminded me a lot of 'Before Sunset,' where two people just talk. They talk about life, art, love, and Elle's son. Then a queer thing happens. Elle asks James to talk about the inspiration for his book. He tells a story of a mother and a son he observed in an Italian museum. Elle's eyes well-up with tears. Like she knows, perfectly, about the event he's describing.
An uneasy feeling washed over me during this moment. It's when I knew that these people weren't strangers after all. At least that's the conclusion I've drawn. Many other reviewers out there have thought up varied scenarios about this couple. My conclusion is that Elle and James are married and have been for 15 years. James is a workaholic and cannot or will not find time to spend with his family. Elle desperately wants him back in their life, but the disconnect between them is too large.
Some reviews I've read talk about it all being an act, or maybe a way for Kiarostami to play with reality and fantasy. Basically saying that one of these is the original relationship and the other is a copy and it's up to you to decide which. To me the movie is saying that the original relationship between these two people was once very happy, but somewhere along the line their marriage eroded away. Not by one large misdeed, but by many small fractures.
The clues are there. Even when they're being cordial you can tell that James is apprehensive about being with her and Elle is just a little too happy to see him. I'm sure that if you watched it again right after watching it the first time you'd catch many subtle looks, phrases, and inflections that would help you understand just what is going on here.
In the end you're left to decide for yourself what's going on. My opinion of what was happening was solidified when Elle, desperate to find any sort of love in her long-lost husband, says, "If we were a bit more tolerant of each other’s weaknesses we would be less alone." Isn't that the perfect description of a marriage gone awry? That's the line of dialogue that really sealed the deal for me. They can't be pretending. They know each other. They once loved each other, but somewhere, little by little, their marriage eroded. Their love died. They, well more to the point he, had forgotten why they truly loved each other in the first place.
'Certified Copy' is a beautiful film and even knowing all of this going in you'll still be able to draw your own conclusions from it. It's a film about how humans interact. Our idiosyncrasies of discussion. Why we can't just come out and say how we feel. Why we feel that we must tip-toe around the meaty issues. I'm sure that upon multiple viewings people would get even more out of it. They may come to a completely different realization. That's what is so great about it. It isn't finalized. It's left as an open book. Just like art, this movie has almost an infinite number of interpretations.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Certified Copy' is one of those quickly-brought-to-Criterion titles. It was only released last year. The movie comes in the standard clear Criterion Blu-ray case. The spine number is 612. Inside there is a 50GB Blu-ray Disc and a booklet. It's a 20-page booklet which contains an essay entitled "At Home and Abroad" by filmmaker and film critic Godfrey Cheshire. Also included is the standard information about the transfer and how the entire transfer was approved by Kiarostami. The back of the case indicates a Region A release.
'Certified Copy' was shot completely digitally using RED cameras. Even though it was shot this way, the movie doesn't have a very digital look to it. Instead, with the setting in Italy, the film looks rather cinematic in nature. As the couple walk along the streets of Italy you may be surprised how clear and detailed their surroundings are. The centuries-old cobblestone streets are worn with age, so are the individual bricks of the city buildings which bare scuffs and scratches that are easily discernible here.
The movie is alive with visual detail that surrounds the characters every time they turn another corner. Using natural light the entire movie feels just as organic as the conversation. At times the sun casts stark shadows, but they're never crushing. There was a few moments at the beginning of the movie where the image periodically darkened and lightened without much reason of why it was doing so. Using natural light it could've been cloud cover moving across the sun, but it seemed to be happening in perfect intervals. It became a little distracting, but soon dispersed once the two of them were walking around the city.
Facial detail is beautiful. Both Binoche and Shimell go for a very natural look here. That's the point. There's no embellishment needed at any point during the movie. The detail available here is paramount to conveying the character's feelings. So many fleeting glances, so many furrowed brows, and they all mean something different. Watching each facial tick, wondering what the characters are thinking, feeling, is part of the fun. It's a good thing you can see everything going on, even the minutest facial movement. It's like you're there observing them, only a few feet away.
Colors are strong and beautifully rendered, from the earthy tones of the surrounding buildings in Italy to the dark magenta lipstick that Elle applies later on. Everything here looks great. It's how you'd expect a Criterion film to look that was just released last year.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track was even more impressive I thought. I expected the movie to look great going in, but with a talkative feature such as this I didn't expect that the audio mix would be all that invigorating, I was wrong.
Just like everything in this movie, the audio mix is as natural as possible. The most impressive part of the track is how it captures the life of the Italian city that they stroll around in. The rear channels are alive with chirping birds which fly overhead whenever they want. People mill about looking at art and statues and you can hear their voices slowly traveling behind you in the rear speakers.
The track isn't bombastic or explosive, but its subtlety is what really scores points here. It's just so natural, so effective, that you don't even feel like you're listening to a movie. Dialogue is always clear and easily intelligible. Directionality works perfectly. For example, James has to take a few calls while they are out on their walk and he usually walks away so he can take his call. You hear his voice trail off as he slowly walks out of frame and you realize that's exactly how it would've sounded had you been standing right there.
I really don't know how to describe the way I felt watching this movie. It's quite the experience, because you're not really sure what's going on the entire time it's happening. Yet the conversation they have is so natural and personal you can't help but be sucked in. Your mind runs wild with ideas about their past. It's a film that engages your brain on the deepest levels. With its great looking video and surprisingly awesome audio, along with a nice helping of special features, is it any wonder this Criterion release comes highly recommended?