I'm not familiar with the work of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, which is to say I've not seen any of his films, including his Palm D'or-winning Taste of Cherry from Cannes 1997. Perhaps that's why I failed to grasp exactly what was going on in Certified Copy, Kiarostami's latest film and his first to be made outside of his native Iran.
What starts out as a debate about art – beauty is in the eye of the beholder, original versus copy – soon morphs into some kind of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? in the Tuscan countryside; a battle between intellect (represented by visiting English author, James Miller (William Shimell)), and emotion (represented by Elle, a local gallery owner and ex-pat Frenchwoman, played by Juliette Binoche in a performance that won her Best Actress at Cannes 2010).
Miller, in town to promote his new book, Certified Copy, meets with Elle and accompanies her on a car trip to a nearby village where it soon becomes apparent that they have some kind of relationship. Or do they? And if so, what is its nature? Do they know each other? Or are they merely pretending to know one another; 'copying' the traits of an established but failing relationship?
Kiarostami teases out these questions as the pair walk and talk the village streets, not unlike the characters in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), though Shimell and Binoche are far more prickly than either Ethan Hawke or Julie Delpy.
Shimell, an opera singer making his feature film acting debut, is very much the pragmatic academic who would appear to appreciate the art that he writes about rather than engaging with it on an emotional level. Binoche's Elle, on the other hand, 'feels' everything and can't understand someone – husband? lover? projection? – who doesn't. She's sympathetic and exasperating in equal measure.
The same could be said for the film. Every time I thought I was getting a grasp on Kiarostami's intent, it took another turn and continued to elude me. Reviews for the film from last year's Cannes Film Festival suggest that Kiarostami is having fun with the idea of originality, in art and film, thus the allusions to Linklater's aforementioned films as well as all those rom-coms where ex-pats escape to the Italian countryside.
One could also read Certified Copy as Kiarostami's statement on the current predicament of film: that there is nothing new; everything is a copy of something else. As I stated, I'm unfamiliar with the director's work so can't say whether cynicism (even if warranted, with regards to that last point) is his usual position. But given that the film ends with Shimell's Miller taking a piss, I'm inclined to think he's in a jocular mood, and the joke is on us.