by Damon Smith
Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Iran, IFC Films
For the epigraph of his now-canonical Simulations, the late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard cited a curiously modern aphorism from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.” The line was apocryphal, of course. Yet legions of academics have quoted it in research papers and at conferences, never questioning the authority of their source, and missing entirely the point of the thinker’s deadpan prank. To a certain mindset, it hardly matters whether the attribution is fabricated. After all, simulations have a truth of their own.
I can think of no better way to introduce Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy—a bittersweet romance as concerned with the philosophy of perception as it is with love, marriage, beauty, and antiquity—than to think of it as a cunningly staged dramatic commentary on the art of fakery. Film manufactures the real, even in documentary, where framing, editing, sound, and the performative self-awareness of nonactors can complicate the notion that we are witnessing a sequence of “captured,” authentically true moments. The opaque dividing line between fiction and documentary is a theme that has interested the Iranian director since his 1990 landmark Close-up, a re-enactment of an actual incident in which a movie-mad bookbinder fooled a wealthy Tehran family into thinking he was the acclaimed filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, starring the real people playing themselves. Further creative redefinitions of the documentary form and cinematic truth inflect the narratives of Through the Olive Trees (crew members playing themselves; nonactors reprising prior roles) and The Wind Will Carry Us, which wryly questioned the position of the filmmaker himself as a master manipulator.
For Certified Copy, Kiarostami has cast two professionals—an English opera star and a well-known Continental actress—in a scenario wholly removed from real-life events. Gone is the emphasis on the fluidity of narrative and nonfiction techniques deployed so splendidly in Ten’s dialogue-driven passenger scenes, as well as the idea that embedding everyday life in fabricated art can provide insight. But the director’s longstanding interest in the ethics of deception (Sabzian’s fraudulent identity theft in Close-up, for instance) and the artifice of cinema (Kiarostami’s frequent on-camera appearances as himself, such as in the epilogue to Taste of Cherry) remain central, fueling the film’s playful humor and fundamental elusiveness. The premise is simple: English art critic James Miller (William Shimell) meets an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) while promoting his book in Italy, and over the course of an afternoon spent meandering through a scenic Tuscan village (first by car, then on foot) they begin to impersonate a married couple.
Kiarostami sets a breezy, whimsical tone from the outset, as James delivers an erudite lecture to a tiny but rapt audience on the topic of his new book (titled Certified Copy), questioning the concept of “originality” and arguing for the artistic merit of reproductions and fakes. Even biologically, he announces in a moment of pedantic bluster, we aren’t the genuine article, since we’re mere “DNA replicas.” These provocative ideas, anathema to the world of art curation, set the framework for his frisky exchanges with Binoche’s nameless character (credited only as “She”), a fan of sorts whose mop-haired teenage son (Adrian Moore) gleefully ribs her after James’s talk for mooning over the Paul Auster–handsome author. After meeting at her basement gallery (“Antiques can be dangerous, you know,” James tells her), the couple elect to go for a drive and, during one of the extended motoring scenes we are accustomed to seeing in Kiraostami’s films, discuss notions of authenticity. He mentions Warhol’s Brillo boxes, arguing for the role of perception in the appreciation of value; she mocks her sister Marie’s love of costume jewelry. The film is alive with such tête-à-têtes, so when a matronly café proprietor mistakes them for life mates, they slip into their respective marital roles, as if testing the premise.
Art and life often meet in Kiarostami, though not often with such a conventional mise-en-scène. Still, the film is as ambiguous and sophisticated as anything in his oeuvre; even his prelude to the couple’s marriage ruse is a savvy and imaginative contrivance. Strolling the town where Binoche’s character has brought her new acquaintance (“There’s something I’d like you to see”), they visit a local museum where a famous painting of the Greek muse Polymnia hangs. Once thought to be an original, the painting was recently determined to be a fake, created several centuries after it was ostensibly rendered by an Italian master, as she explains to James. Instead of junking it, the experts decided it was a “perfect copy” worthy of its own fame. James is intrigued. The catch, of course, is that the story of the artwork is Kiarostami’s own conceit: Polymnia is the sacred muse of erotic poetry and mimicry, or the art of imitation, a perfect symbol for the sexual tension and intellectual disagreement that divide them, as well as the circumstances under which they enter into their seemingly innocuous bluff. As James says to Binoche at one point, “There’s nothing very simple about being simple.”
Though the film is easy to pick apart for its talky tangents and occasionally inert dialogue, the couple’s play-acting leaves an air of uncertainty over the degree to which each character’s “performance” is understood as heartfelt and truthful. Certain incidents—Binoche’s careful application of lipstick in a bathroom mirror just before she joins James for dinner, his dry proclamations of independence from family concerns (“They lead their lives, I live mine”)—leave open questions about just how invested each is in their romantic experiment, and even how they’ve come to know each other in the first place. Strangely, James tells a personal anecdote about seeing a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David in Florence that seems to connect them in the past; she’s rattled, but that bit of information Kiarostami leaves the viewer to puzzle over, without a later clarification, when James receives a phone call.
Trouble in Paradise it isn’t, but their breezy rapport is reminiscent of old-fashioned Hollywood comedies, especially in a bizarrely melodramatic argument at a restaurant, deployed with a classic shot/reverse shot scheme that makes the actors’ direct-to-camera outbursts feel extravagantly clumsy and false. Another ruse? Or a major misfire by Kiarostami, working out of his comfort zone in a European setting, negotiating dialogue in English, Italian, and French? In a sense, it doesn’t matter, because the scene exaggerates the conventions of mainstream romantic comedies (bickering couples, blind dates gone sour) to cartoonish extremes, heightening our sense of film’s unreality and the artificial nature of their situation: They’re two strangers mimicking a married couple. James loses his temper over the vacuous bourgeois “custom” of pretending to taste a newly opened bottle of wine before agreeing to let it be served, or merely pretends to be upset in service to his role. Performance is part of who we are in our everyday lives, Kiarostami might be suggesting, as we don a variety of masks and enact different aspects of our persona. What’s the harm in pretending?
The question, of course, is not whether they’re “faking it,” but what the meaning of their pantomime is for each character, and to us as viewers. If what’s real is indistinguishable from its reproduction, then what happens to meaning? Truth? Love? This is essentially the quandary at the heart of the Polymnia conceit. A museum curator cares whether an artwork hanging in her gallery is authentic. A spectator may not, instead willing to see and enjoy a “perfect copy” on its own terms. But fooling the eye is one thing, fooling the heart quite another. And it’s in the afterimage of the counterfeit marriage that Kiarostami, despite some design flaws, finds poignancy in Certified Copy, ending on a scene of tenderness and vulnerability that dumps the intellectual parrying for a purely emotional wallop, inviting as many readings as it disavows. Simulations have a truth of their own.