Once upon a time, commercials for audio cassette tapes asked, "Is it live or is it Memorex?" When there's no discernable difference between what's real and what's a copy, one's sense of self understandably becomes uncertain. Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy" considers what's real between two people, and whether it should bother us when reality becomes replaced with a copy.
For starters, a copy of reality is a pretty good definition of art. "Certified Copy" takes place in Southern Tuscany, where a small assemblage awaits an absent lecturer. James Miller (William Shimell) arrives late to discuss his book (also called "Certified Copy"), which has been awarded "best foreign essay of the year." The subject is art, which Miller concedes is "not an easy subject to write about." He adds: "There are no fixed points of reference. There are no immutable truths to write about."
One can say the same for human relationships. Miller's explanation that he has explored the psychological and philosophical aspects of his subject prepares us for Kiarostami's approach to the unknown variables in a courtship and a marriage of minds. Present at the Tuscany conference is a woman (Juliette Binoche) whose restlessly bothersome boy hastens her exit. The teen teases his mother that she likes the author; soon thereafter, she meets the man at her antiques gallery and initiates a flirtation.
As the pair go through the age-old motions of coquetry, clues suggest they may have a shared past that they're playfully ignoring. Are these two kindling a relationship or rekindling one? Kiarostami deliberately avoids an explicit answer to that question, but at the film's midpoint, the characters seem less like potential lovers (who could already be married) and more like spouses of 15 years (who could have only just met). Perhaps this luminous mother and this silver fox are testing out a future together; perhaps they are considering if they still have one.
Many American viewers will immediately think of Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise," as Kiarostami's film takes the form of two people flirting and squabbling over a long conversation that winds its way through a beautiful European city. Like "Before Sunrise," "Certified Copy" is clever, at times charming and at others heartfelt, and possessed of two interesting actors. Binoche remains a treasure of the screen, while operatic baritone Shimell makes a convincing screen debut. Though both are allowed their seductive moments, they're also game to look petty and off-puttingly irritable as the situation demands.
Kiarostami plays with archetypal gender roles: She's sentimental, he's trapped in his head, and both are stubborn. She's compelled to lay traps for him, and he's unwilling to give her the simple thing she wants, a reassuring shoulder to lean on or an arm to lock with hers.
Talk of his absence (also the film's opening image) gives the film an underlying tension: When push comes to shove, will he make good on his insistence that he must hop a train, living his life and leaving her to hers? The answer may tell if what's between them is live or memory.