I wanted to see Certified Copy (Copie Conforme) for a while. It was reviewed very favorably by a lot of critics whose opinions I regard highly. It's on Netflix now, so I watched it the other night from about 1:00 am to 3:00 am, which turned out to be a pretty good time to watch such a slow-burn of a movie.
It mostly focuses on an short afternoon of conversation between Elle, played by Juliette Binoche (whom I now have kind of a crush on), and James Miller, played by William Shimell (whom I thought I'd seen in some other movie, but, after an IMDb-check, I realize I have not (I did learn that he is "one of Britain's most accomplished operatic baritones, which is definitely apparent in the movie through his lulling speaking voice (another reason why Certified Copy is such a pleasant late-night movie))). At first it seems that Elle and James have just met. He's the author of a book-length essay, titled Certified Copy, that argues that copies of art are valuable inasmuch as the viewer of those copies engages with them in a way that is valuable to him/her. Elle seems to be a fan, and she's set up a meeting with him to drive him around the Tuscan countryside on a kind of tour. Initially, almost everything (save for a strange conversation between Elle and her son) points to the fact that this is their first meeting.
But things start slipping.
Their conversation becomes more fraught with familiarity. At a cafe, a woman "mistakes" them for husband and wife, and Elle doesn't correct her. Then, as James is telling a story about watching a woman and her son standing at a fountain in Florence from his hotel window (the fountain is a copy, but the son is mesmerized by it just the same, which is how James got the idea for his book), a perfect little tear rolls down Elle's cheek as she says, "Sounds familiar." The rest of the movie is them walking around, talking, performing the roles of husband and wife. Maybe they are husband and wife. Maybe they're pretending. Maybe it doesn't matter.
There is a lot going on this movie. Lots of layers to look into. One pivotal question is what to do about the dwindling romance between the two of them after 15 years of marriage (or, at least, pretend marriage), and is it as inescapable as James thinks it is. As James performs the role of the distant husband/absent father, he presents a cold marital philosophy of "I do my thing on my own, and my family does their thing on their own." Elle chides him for being too theoretical, when in praxis, that theory is kind of bullshit. A thick loneliness accumulates around the two of them, distances them from one another. At one point, Elle says, "If we were a bit more tolerant of each other's weaknesses we'd be less alone." What a sad thing to have to say.
Another question is: Does it matter that this is a copy of a marriage? The writer/director, Abbas Kiarostami, puts the question of the realness of this marriage into our minds, but isn't every movie-marriage a copy of an idea of marriage? Aren't we still moved by what we see on the screen? I need to go back and re-read Walter Benjamin's "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" then re-watch Certified Copy to get a better handle on some of these questions.
Elle and James's marriage springs into existence and falls apart in the span of a single afternoon. The sped-upness of it reminds me of Synecdoche New York, but slightly less meta. Kiarostami seems to be playing with us, here, but in a very serious sort of way that feels sincere and character-driven. So what if the characters are characters, copies of ideas? So what if every postmodern treatise on art has hammered their constructedness into our heads. They (the characters) can still be moving, and that's nice to know.