Certified Copy (2010) – Abbas Kiarostami

We normally think of poetry as one of a number of arts; and so, it is clear, did Plato. But, if we now go on to look at the kind of thing Plato said when he was talking about art in general (including poetry but not limiting himself to it) and then at the kind of thing he said when he was talking about poetry only, we find a striking difference. In the first case (thinking of art in general or poetry merely as one among other arts) he treats it as a form of mimesis – imitation. Thus in the Republic we are told that poets and artists in general, are unreliable because they produce imperfect imitations or copies of nature; and Plato adds that, since nature herself is only an imperfect copy of an eternal and immaterial reality, the poet is a man who supplies us with an imperfect copy of an imperfect copy.
– Owen Barfield

“Well,” said Reason. “Try now to answer my third riddle. By what rule do you tell a copy from an original?”
The giant muttered and mumbled and could not answer, and Reason set spurs in her stallion and it leaped up onto the giant’s mossy knees and galloped up his foreleg, till she plunged her sword into his heart. Then there was a noise and a crumbling like a landslide and the huge carcass settled down: and the Spirit of the Age become what he had seemed to be at first, a sprawling hummock of rock.
– C.S. Lewis


This review may contain spoilers. (Sometimes the term “spoiler” can mean different things. In other words, usually, with a great film, once you decide to try the thing, it’s preferable to read nothing at all about it, and to simply allow the story to reveal itself to you in its own way. On the other hand, I realize there are films upon which one isn’t quite sure if one should spend the time and effort. You can just take my word for it that Certified Copy is absolutely one of these films. Or, if you still need a little convincing, I’m not going to reveal the ending so go ahead and read as much of this as you need to until you’ve decided to try it out.)

To state the obvious, most people will find Abbas Kiarostami’s latest film, Certified Copy, incredibly dull. I believe the description film critics are also giving it is “pretentious.” The entire film is simply a conversation. But oh the joy you’ll miss if you are constitutionally incapable of sitting through, and reflecting upon, for only a short 106 minutes, this conversation. Of course, “conversation” is just one way of describing it. You could also say it was a “dare” or perhaps even a “duel,” but more on that later.

First things first, I want to make it clear that Kiarostami gives us no reason for not taking this little story of his at face value. The man, James (William Shimell), meets a French woman antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche). They are strangers. They are interested in some of the same things, but they are also polar opposites. He is intellectual, cold, aloof and philosophical. She is passionate, warm-hearted, intimate, and whimsical. Both are very intelligent and thoughtful. He’s a little full of himself. She’s a little fanciful and idealistic. Some reviewers are concluding that they really are married, but doing so misses an important point in the story. More on this later.

At the heart of the film is a single idea, summed up nicely by the film’s title (also the title of the book written by James). James has just written a philosophical book on art. In it, he makes the argument that the idea of something being real or authentic is just meaningless. A great work of art doesn’t have to be the original copy in order to inspire or exhibit beauty to the viewer. In other words, a copy of something is just as good as the real something. To James, the word “fake” doesn’t even have any meaning either. The derivative thing, the copied work, a forgery, or a replica work – are really no different from the original thing, the initial work, a archetype or a first work.

So, this French woman wanted to meet James to ask him about this book he wrote. (Is that just unbelievable? Do they have to be married really because no one really cares to question an author about the philosophical ideas of his book?) He’s speaking at a book signing near where she lives in Italy, so she sets up a meeting with him. As they decide to go out for a drive and discussion, she begins challenging his main idea. Her sister, she says, agrees with him. Her sister is simple and prefers practical use to aesthetic value. In other words, her sister would argue that a mechanical gas fire in the fireplace is better than a hand built log fire in the fireplace. Binoche’s character believes this is fundamentally wrong. She believes something that is real and authentic has greater value than something that is merely copied or faked. To her, these words do have meaning. And understanding that meaning – understanding the distinction between what is real and what is copied is fundamental to the lives we live.

Listening to these two talk is not dull. They each have sharp wits in their own way. She is immediately more likable and sympathetic than he, but that’s just their personalities. Remember, he’s distant and British; she’s passionate and French. Since he asked her to get out of town for a bit, she decides to take him to a small quaint little Italian village to show him something. It’s a clever idea to support her argument actually. She takes him to an art museum of sorts to see a beautiful old painting that was recently discovered to have been cleverly copied from an even older original work. In other words, it is the “real thing” when it comes to copies. She finds it special and paradoxical, he finds it … dull. It’s nothing new in his opinion. Copies like this sort of thing are everywhere, all the time, in every place.

His whole attitude towards the place is one of indifference. What value do any of these original or copied works have? Only the value, in his opinion, that the viewer subjectively gives them. Beauty, in his eyes, is solely subjective and determined only by each individual’s own personal tastes. After all, she told him about how her sister likes her simple and stuttering husband. In and of himself, her sister’s husband doesn’t necessarily have value, but his wife gives him value in her own mind by caring for him. Again, value and worth are subjectively determined. If he doesn’t choose to see value in the painting, then what’s the big deal?

To get a better grasp of this debate, you really just need to watch the film. I admit I’ve only just seen it, and I immediately felt like writing as many thoughts that I could about the film down before I completely forgot all of them. Thus, I can’t reproduce many lines of dialogue. But it’s a discussion both worth having and worth listening to. However, the discussion/argument is just a prelude to the part of the film where the tension begins to build. These two next decide to go to a coffee shop, during which he has to step out for a phone call. While he’s away, the waitress says something briefly to Binoche’s character and it turns out the waitress is assuming the two of them are married. Almost on a mischievous whim, the woman decides to go along with it, and she creatively starts making up elaborate details about their “marriage” to tell to the waitress. This is also where the village becomes important. Not only does the village have an ancient building full of art, it also has an ancient tradition that a golden tree inside the building will bring luck to any bride and groom. Thus, the village is always full of people who go there to get married. Marriage becomes the subject used to test out these ideas.

The elaborate fiction of their marriage that she creates is further encouraged when he arrives back from his phone call to find the waitress asking him about his “marriage” and he decides to go along with it too. He’s momentarily surprised, but when he sees the mischievous smile of this woman he’s with, and when he listens to the elaborate details she has created about the problems they have in their marriage, he can’t help but be impressed. And why not? And then, what starts out as a game turns into a meaningful conflict. What better way to prove their points to each other that they have just been arguing for the last couple hours? If he can show to her that, by pretending that they are married, contriving an inauthentic copy of a marriage is just as good as, or really no different from, the real thing, then he’ll finally succeed in proving the very point that she has been so intent on challenging. If she can show to him that, by pretending they are married, the sham is not of the same value as the real thing, then she will have convinced him that the part of his book that so annoys her so is, indeed, actually wrong.

Thus, what begins as an amusing conversation and then turns to playful fancy develops immediately into a battle of wits. Both of them have left each other free to make up whatever details or memories of their marriage that they please in order to advance their own position. Both of them just have to keep playing along with pretending in spite of surprises that they are in a “real” marriage together. He, in order to show her that there’s really no difference at all; she, in order to show him that there really is quite an important difference indeed.

But it isn’t that easy. The match of wits between the two of them is fascinating to watch, but they both put themselves into playing their fake roles with such enthusiasm that it starts looking like the real thing. In order to play their roles, they both have to pretend to have the feelings of a married couple (married for 15 years is the story they get stuck with early on). But as they continue to discuss these ideas in the context of constructing a copy of a real marriage, they start getting into fights. Then, in order to play their parts well, their fights need to be emotional. But the line between pretending to feel and adopting the real feeling itself is a line difficult to discern. Both of them have lived long enough to have love and lost, and both have prior experiences to draw from in their making up stories about their “marriage.” So both of them are inevitably playing with real experiences and real hurts from their past.

She finds it easier to put her real feelings into it sooner than he does, but once there, he can’t help but respond. Storming off after having lost one argument that she almost unfairly (but it’s not like they set any rules) contrives to make him out to be the bad guy in the marriage (constantly being away from his family, leaving her frequently for long periods of time on business, falling asleep on the night of their 15th anniversary), he thinks things through and comes back with an elaborately contrived story of his own about her (falling asleep while driving their son). The details are almost too perfect. It’s no wonder so many other film reviewers insist on believing them. But simply assuming they then must really be married is, in my opinion, shortchanging Kiarostami. Half of their conversations and stories lose their magic if they’re actually true. The genius of a man and woman both captivated by the other, going back and forth, masking their surprise and being impressed with the other’s creativity, is part of what makes the debate between the two so riveting. It’s like a dance.

Half the fun of this game they’re playing with each other is making it up as they go along. There’s an old statute of an affectionate man & woman in the middle of a fountain? They use it to discuss whether art is subjective, whether beauty is really only in the eye of the beholder, and whether romance and trust are really possible for a husband and wife. She says the idea of feeling safe in a marriage is a grand and noble idea. He says trusting any marriage to last, or the idea of a man and woman selflessly devoted to each other, is ridiculous and unrealistic. In other words, there are some things that he doesn’t believe are real. He finds unrealistic people ridiculous. She brings this to his attention by constantly interacting with the new brides and grooms in the village. It’s not a coincidence that this becomes a regular point of contention in their pretend relationship.

They do find each other attractive. There’s a chemistry that builds between them early in the film. So as the debate continues, they both find it easier and easier to play their parts, and more and more believable that they really have been married to each other this long. After having drawn from their past experiences and frustrations to use against each other in this little competition of theirs, part of what gives their developing relationship its depth is that they each, at various intervals, seem to believe in the parts they are playing. Pretending that something is real can , under given circumstances, can begin to make something real. Sometimes, when you pretend, you can even forget what is real, for at least a little while.

Marriage is a union, a welding, a cleaving, a powerful development of intimacy and trust that ought to only strengthen with time. Over the hours that this man and woman spend together in the film, their intimacy with each other increases. Their understanding of each other strengthens. And the bond they are pretending exists in fiction starts developing of its own accord. They are really starting to feel close because they began pretending to feel close. She really has her feelings hurt by him because she has really begun to care about his opinion and his distance. He really starts to care about hurting her because her tears, that might have first been fake, don’t look so fake anymore. How could she not, with this responsive disposition of hers encouraged by his sudden acts of gentleness, begin to really fall in love with him? How could he not, with a woman this fascinating, begin to really become captivated with who she is as a person?

So yes, they really start falling in love. But doesn’t this prove his point? Wasn’t a pretend marriage suddenly just as joyful and hurtful as a real marriage? He argued at the beginning that a copy of an original beautiful painting could give the same feelings and the same appreciation of beauty as the original work itself. Besides, if feeling and aesthetic sense is only subjective, then why would it matter what you used to cultivate your sense of beauty? They are surrounded by newlyweds in this village, many of whom will experience, in his opinion, all the same disillusionment, miscommunication and hurt that the two of them are experiencing in their pretend marriage for a day. So what’s really the difference?

If you don’t like his character for most of the film, is it because you find him pretentious or fake? He acts that way on purpose. To him, any personality or character trait he chooses to take upon himself is just as good as a real personality or character trait. There is no meaning in saying a real marriage is any better than a fake marriage, or an authentic relationship conveys feelings that could never be understood in a pretend relationship. The fact that he stays hesitant to keep playing this game is also part of his philosophical position. She falls for him before he falls for her. But, for her, doing so supports her challenge to his argument. Making her feelings, about a marriage created only by her a whim, turn into the real thing is part of how she can persuade him that what is authentic is more valuable than what is not. Falling in love with him makes her really care about changing him and winning the argument.

In her eyes, he needs to prefer the genuine relationship to the contrived one. It’s probably easier for us to take her side against his. We’ve been taught that being authentic is to be preferred to being derivative. We believe real emotions are to be preferred to hypocrisy. Obviously. Of course. But, the terms “authentic” and “reality” are used so repetitively in our modern culture that they are often in danger of becoming cliches themselves. Products are labeled “authentic” or “original” all the time by marketing companies. If this is true, then what do we do when our preference for authenticity and reality becomes fake or contrived? becomes a fad? At the beginning of this review I said that most people would find the film boring. If you asked them why, they might say because the story and the conversation seems so pretentious and contrived. For instance, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw writes –

“It is a film that is pregnant with ideas, and for aspiring to a cinema of ideas Kiarostami is to be thanked and admired. But the simple human inter-relation between the two characters is never in the smallest way convincing, and there is a translated, inert feel to the dialogue.”

What Bradshaw is missing is that most of the dialogue is pretend dialogue. I’m convinced they aren’t really married, but they each decide to pretend in order to win the argument. Back to my last question, I’m also afraid a large number of people will see this film simply because they believe it to be authentic “art house” intellectual movie fare. Their consumption of what has been marketed to them as avant garde , outside of Hollywood, indie flicks has more to do with the image they want to build for themselves than it does with really caring about thinking about the ideas in the film itself. One of the worst problems with the character of James in this film is that his tendency to “think deep thoughts” is affected. When she looks at him, you can’t help but imagine her thinking how he might as well be an entirely fake human being. This idea of copies and originals, real and fake, can be applied to people as well as to art. His hollow and lofty ideas come across as trying to justify himself more than they come across as his really caring about them.

But why is this idea of copies and fakes, of pretending that something is real and the authenticity of a thing, so fascinating? I can’t help but be reminded of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity , where he writes (in book IV, chapter 7 entitled ‘Let’s Pretend’) that a Christian may just have to start “dressing up as Christ” in his or her actions to other people in order to be capable of following Christ at all. Lewis explains –

“… Why? What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were.

Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-ups — playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits, so that the pretence of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.

Now, the moment you realise “Here I am, dressing up as Christ,” it is extremely likely that you will see at once some way in which at that very moment the pretence could be made less of a pretence and more of a reality. You will find several things going on in your mind which would not be going on there if you were really a son of God. Well, stop them. Or you may realise that, instead of saying your prayers, you ought to be downstairs writing a letter, or helping your wife to wash-up. Well, go and do it …”

Ultimately, by living out their argument for a day, the man and woman in this film start loving each other. They begin by using words and they end by staking their very beings, heart and soul, into personifying each side of the argument. But by doing this, something unexpected happens. The majority of the film is a duel of sorts, not to the death, but to the heart. Both man and woman are suddenly confronted with something real – and that’s each other and the possibility of continuing to love and spend time with each other. He didn’t think there was any difference between reality and a copy of reality, but by copying something real, he found that he had created something real. A copy of a beautiful painting can be a beautiful thing. Pretending to have an intimate relationship creates a actual intimate relationship. Even if he’s only had a hint of it for a day, he believes in it at the end. She didn’t think it would matter to just pretend to be his wife, because she believed that a copy was not as good, meaningful or significant as the real thing. But by pretending to love him, she proved almost accidentally that pretense isn’t as strong as reality because it can turn into reality.

What is the difference between fake and real, between the copied and the authentic? The difference is evident when you are suddenly faced with a choice between the two. In our lives, we are often suddenly confronted with the ability to choose between that which is fake & shallow and that which is actual & new. At the end of the day, the man and woman in this story are suddenly confronted with the fact that they can end their discussion, he can catch his train at the station, and they can never see each other again. They both have the ability to end their pretended marriage and to put a stop to the real intimacy that has developed between them over this slow afternoon of walking down the streets of a superstitious old Italian village. But do they want to? What are they going to choose? What should they choose?

This is the final question the audience, who has just watched a film (where actors pretend to be in real life) about two people acting out roles in order to make an argument, is confronted with. More films should confront us with more of these sorts of questions more of the time. Kiarostami is to be thanked for doing so.