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Certified Copy

The Two True Realities That Explain the Movie Certified Copy

Some movies are simple. ‘Armageddon’ levels of stupid-simple.  A rock is hurtling towards the earth, we need to save the earth from certain doom. Got it. Some movies are stupid-simple, with a minor twist… like any of the Marvel movies. We must save the universe from these marauding bad guys, but TRICK! that good guy is now a bad guy, but you don’t know it. Fair enough. And then in the next iteration of this progression would be minor mind job movies like maybe 10 Cloverfield Lane where we don’t know exactly what the threat is here… maybe its aliens? Maybe its the guy next to us in the bunker? Or, maybe even a better example would be 28 Days Later, wherein the zombies actually aren’t the bad guys, but rather the other fellow humans laid waste by the zombies.

Then we jump into the realm of movies that THiNC salivates about. Movies like The Prestige, Arq, you know, movies like Upstream Color, Primer, Old Boy, The One I Love, and the like…. wherein, even the basic facts are in question. Well, that is what I have for you here today boys and girls. (And I have to give a shout out to Phil, who was good enough to hook us up with this movie suggestion.) This is one of those movies that require us to argue about even the most basic of truths. But we’ll get to that in good time.

For those of you still trying to decide if you should take my word for it, whether the movie is worth your time (heck, take Phil’s word for it if nothing else), I have this as a sales job. Certified Copy is a Before Sunrise, but for the more sophisticated amongst us. Certified Copy is actually more like Before Midnight (if you’d like me to split hairs here). Or possibly a grownup’s Midnight in Paris? And yet it is for philosophy majors, and art critic majors. It is a European version of the before series, but it is an investigation into love, marriage and dedication. But its better in that so much of this movie is completely opaque to us. And that is why we are here today. So just go watch it, and blame me for ruining a couple hours of your life. I’ll take that on my shoulders. Yeah. I’ll own this movie for you. Just go watch it, and then come tell me how horrible it is in the comments.

I really don’t know how to talk to you all about this movie. This is going to be a difficult one. But one thing is clear, from here on out, I’m diving really deeply into spoilers. Please please do not read through these posts without having seen the movies I talk about. I mainly talk about them with those that have seen it already in order to clarify and illucidate exactly what happened. So that when we debate the movie, we have a common groundwork to start from. Alright?

But with this movie, it is so so so hard to understand. We have a surface level confusion. And then there is like a metaphysical confusion here. And this one strikes to my own heart of confusion. So I don’t know how well adept I’ll be at explaining that aspect of it. But I’ll give it a go none the less. More of the arguments and the mental wrestling though will be done as we discuss the what than normal. So you’ll just have to read it from beginning to end to see if you track. Ok?

What The Heck Happened In The Movie Certified Copy?!?

The movie starts with a lecture by the author of the book, Copie Conforme. But in the front row, right there in front of him, is a distracted woman. Why is she distracted? Well, because her son is hungry. She is obviously infatuated with him, maybe. And there he is, lecturing on these vaunted topics, oblivious. But she gets her card to him, and an invitation to hang out later that day. “The copy leads us to a better understanding of the original.”

So James agrees to come and met our obviously smitten fan that simply goes by the name of She in the credits. But on one condition… he has to get to a train by nine o’clock that evening. Got that? Nine. Good.

And as their date, or their encounter, their something… (this is the crux of the question isn’t it?) commences they begin chatting and laughing and the tension is extraordinarily high. But why? What is this invisible tension between the two of them? She finishes his jokes. They laugh at untold punch lines. There is something happening here that isn’t exactly clear.

His book is an argument for beauty and enjoyment of that beauty despite its originalness. He thinks that even copies are beautiful. That nothing is original. Even the Mona Lisa is a copy of the original model it was based upon. That if you placed a purse in an art museum it could be considered art solely due to the reverence and adulation that it is given. Heck, even the cypress trees there on the side of the road, if placed in a museum could be considered art. Each one different. Each one with its own distinct beauty. So he is an intellectual. He is a bit of a peacock, strutting his brain back and forth in front of her. And yet, she won’t have any of it. She is not buying any of his arguments. There is no benefit of the doubt that he is given. And from a fan girl you would think that she’d cut him some slack. No?

The Central Question – What Is Their Relationship?

As we continue deeper into this labyrinth, the single question of the film? And that question is, what is James’ and She’s relationship? Are they new friends? Is she a fan? Are they married, with 15 years behind them? Do they have a child together? There is evidence for numerous ways to view their relationship. As dreaming new friends. As a married regretful couple. There is evidence for a million ways to see this relationship. So the further down the rabbit trail we go, the more you need to consider this question. What are they to each other? Are they the authentic thing, or are the certified copies?

What Is A Certified Copy?

The deeper into the movie we go the more we hear tell of the irrelevance of the “original” and the “copy”. James continues to argue beauty, whether copied or original, is still beauty. And to illustrate the point, She takes James out to see an important painting in the area that was recently proven to be a copy. And James makes the argument that it was too bad that they had to call it out as a copy, mainly because the original was even a copy. And She counters this argument with the question, So there is nothing original then?

And as a result, James tells the story of a woman he had noticed 5 years ago. She walked fifty yards ahead of her son, and occasionally, would turn to see if he was there. And then on she would go again. But one day he notices the woman with her son sitting in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, at the feet of Michelangelo’s David. And it was the only time that he saw the two together, and he was pretty sure that she didn’t tell her son that it was a fake. That the original was in the Accademia, but not there in the Piazza. And the child is staring at the work of art in awe, just marveling at the wonder of it.

The interesting thing about this anectdote was that She begins crying at the telling of it. It is obviously her that he is referring to. But how? How could that be? If they have just met? Could it be a coincidence? Or, are they making up this “shared” history as a part of their fictional back story? Is She crying an act? An act of certified copy-ness? Are they appropriating this false history together in some sort of strange act of fake intimacy? Or are they making up their lack of knowledge together? Regardless, they are connected, at this moment, from sort of joint unity and history together, whether fact or fiction.

The Question of Language in Certified Copy

I lived in a common dorm room setup when I attended school in England. And in said dorm, I could turn 10 degrees to starboard and the language could flick to German, another 20 degrees, some crazy Irish that I understood less of than the German channel I had just switched from, to French. And it’s more interesting to have it happen to you midconversation that you are participating in. To watch as two French students confer on a topic, then come back to continue in English, or to have a sidebar on my own with a Spanish student, then flip back to English again. Right? Rabbit trail alert – I remember playing a game of Risk with several members of the school and to see treaties and alliances formed in front of you in languages I could not understand, and to create treaties of my own with fellow players based on our shared languages was fascinating. But I digress.

My point here being, William Shimell, and Juliette Binoche are amazing polyglots, capable of flipping from language to language at will. I’d actually argue that most Americans will dislike this movie simply for this reason alone. Oh they aren’t SPEAKING IN ENGLISH!? I don’t want to read my movie! Hahah. I remember going to see an American movie near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, right? Ah! It’ll be a nice break! (I think it was the Hudsucker Proxy, but I can’t be sure.) Only to find that it was DUBBED into French. hahah. But no worries! It was subtitled in ENGLISH! hahahah. Regardless, the languages that are being used are just as important as the truths being exchanged. At the start of the film, English seems to be much of the default language. But over time Italian trickles in. And then as they seem to become more contentious and go their own way philosophically, French becomes the coin of the realm. Why? What does it mean?

Well, there is a fascinating conversation between She and a local cafe owner as they discuss “her husband” and why he doesn’t speak Italian or French. And they go on to discuss how he is to busy to even try speaking in the local language, or even in her language. The cafe owner defends him, for even a bad husband is a good thing. But she cannot understand this language mismatch. And when he returns from his phone call, James tells She to tell the cafe owner, “That I speak my language and they speak their language.” Which only enrages She.

The Faulty Search For An Ideal

I just can’t tell you enough, just how big of an impact this conversation between She and the woman at the cafe had on me. First she is the first to imply that She and James are married. Second, she implies that even an over working husband is better than nothing. She checks the important boxes in her mind, work-a-holic? Check. Mistresses? No. Ok, then let’s put it into perspective what we are complaining about here. And then she goes on to say this, and I quote, “Some men don’t work at all. A happy middle would be nice, but… It’d be stupid of us to ruin our lives for an ideal.”

And right here, I’m taking a technical time out, knowing full well that I’m already thousands of words longer than I should be on this post, but come on, this is Certified Copy we are talking about here. Chill. I want to say that the reason that this was impact on me isn’t because I want my wife to take a chill pill about my work-a-holic-ism. But the other way around. Yes, I’d love a pass on the fact that I work to many hours at my job. And I spend every other waking moment on this site. But for me its an other way round thing. I need to give the other people in my life some slack – that I should ruin my life over some stupid ideal. That my wife deserves slack. My kids deserve slack. That my friends deserve slack. And that is true. I’m just such a freaking hardcore critic of everything and everyone. All the time.  So, in the scope and scale of things in the movie, this Cafe owner just slices and dices She. Look, he may not be there as much as you’d like, but maybe you need to cut him some slack? Which, we’ll come back to later. But keep that in the back of your minds, “She was saying that even a bad husband is worth having.”

The Garden of Leaflessness Who Dare Say It Isn’t Beautiful

James: I wish I could tell that couple that … the only thing that will keep love in their marriage is care — care and awareness.

Elle: Awareness of what?

James: That everything changes, and promises won’t stop that. You don’t expect a tree to promise to keep its blossoms. After spring is over, the blossoms turn to fruits, and then the tree loses its fruits.

Elle: And then?

James: And then The Garden of Leaflessness.

Elle: The Garden of Leaflessness?

James:  (It’s from) a Persian poem. “The Garden of Leaflessness, who dares say it is not beautiful?”

So what exactly is Kiarostami telling us here? That everything changes. And we can’t hope that away. But specifically, odes of love and affection won’t keep the changing of this garden from happening. So the garden loses its leaves, its fruit… but that does not mean it isn’t beautiful. So this drought, and this anger, this resentment that She and James are feeling (are faking?) is still beautiful. It still comes from the same garden that their love once sprung from. And that they should never forget that.

The Art of Being Present

I just cannot stop talking about this stupid movie. Gah. heheh. And one of the final points I want to talk about comes towards the end of the movie. James and She have a bit of a debate about a sculpture in the small Italian town they wandered into. She doesn’t think it’s art, but she likes the subject and the way the woman is resting her head on the man’s shoulder. Please note, the sculpture is never shown to us really at all. Why? Because Kiarostami wants us to grapple with the idea, and not the piece of art. He wants us to discuss the philosophy and the idea, and not the work.

So She goes and finds two random tourists to discuss the sculpture with. And they discuss the piece, and the woman says that she likes the power of the man, and the serenity of the woman’s face. But more interestingly, the man pulls James aside and tells him… “Let me be direct, all she wants from you is for you to walk by her side, and lay your hand on her shoulder, that’s all she’s longing for. All your problems can be solved by a simple gesture.”

Let me remind you… they aren’t married. (Or are they?) And yet, they continue to get advice from anyone and everyone telling them to be present, to give grace, and understanding. And yet, these two people just met earlier that same day (or did they?). And as the movie comes to a close, She asks if he remembers what hotel they stayed in from their honeymoon. And he doesn’t. So she asks if they can go into room number nine. And they go in and talk…

She: “Have I changed?”

James: “You are even more beautiful”

She: “If we were a little more tolerant of each other’s weaknesses we’d be less alone. Stay with me, it’s better for both of us. Give us that chance.”

And James’ response to the most honest and open statement of the movie? “I told you, I must be at the station by nine.” And the bells are ringing, tolling the end of their play acting. Or maybe the bells toll the truth, and that their 15 year marriage will continue to survive because they will continue to endure, in spite of the leaflessness?

So Are They Married or a Certified Copy?

Normally when I try and unravel a movie I will give you a pile of different theories to think about and decide for yourself. But, I literally don’t believe there is an answer here. Normally I opine one way or another, but I won’t be doing that here. Both answers are correct simultaneously. They are married and they are not married. They are a quantum entangled particle. They are simultaneously on and off. And in so doing, they are telling us truth about both things states of being.

Juliette Binoche won the Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in this movie in 2011. And it was a divine acting job. She walks this line of familiar and not so perfectly. Reminds me of the amazing movie, Cloud of Sils Maria that we had so much fun discussing here on THiNC. And if anyone wants to do me a solid, and figure out how to get me an interview with Mrs. Binoche, I’d have a life debt to you. That would be amazing.

But at the ned of the day, I love flipping this coin, and considering what these truths mean if they are married, and then again if they are not. I enjoy considering both truths simultaneously. It’s such a heady thing to even really consider. And I’ll admit, I was 100% convinced as I was watching that they were married, but just playing. But the further I get from it, the more convinced I am they might not have been. And now, a week after watching it? I love that both are true. And that I can be all the better for both realities. And that is the two true realities that explain the movie certified copy

I don’t know. What do you think of the film? I am dying to hear your thoughts on the movie.

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14 Responses

  1. Phil

    Thanks for writing this up based on my recommendation! I love your new movie recommendation mechanism. I guess no one wanted to discuss this one – probably didn’t watch due to subtitles ;) I do love your “both are true” assessment; I hadn’t thought of that but now prefer that take…which is similar to my takeaway from Mr Nobody. Thanks for the great writeup on this film that’s puzzled me for years!

    • Taylor Holmes

      You are more than welcome…
      Oh don’t worry that no one has commented yet. They will. Each post takes a bit to gain Google SEO juice, and also get found by the community. It’s especially hard with older films. If people are looking for it now because it just came out on Netflix, it gets commented on a lot faster. BUT YOU GUYS LIkeD PHIL’s IDEA FOR A DISCUSSION MOVIE DIDNTYA!? DIDNTYA?!? Maybe that’ll work? hahahah.

      It was a great movie. I really really enjoyed it. Made me feel like I had moved from my normal take of burgers and fries, over to white wine and surf and turf. Such fantastic acting, writing, everything. So good. Thanks again!!

  2. Jacob Neff

    I watched this for the first time this morning, and then watched it all over again this evening, which is almost the same thing I did with Kiarostami’s CLOSE-UP. Both films captivated and mystified me, begging to be understood, yet offering no definitive answer. The second viewing was key to my having something of a grasp on the film, which followed along with your discussion of it.

    I completely identify with you wanting to hear others thoughts about it as it’s as mindbending as a Shane Carruth movie (PRIMER; UPSTREAM COLOR) without a hint of sci-fi found in its puzzle box. I do love your take that there is no one answer. They are both married and not married at the same time, because they both represent the realities of a specific and general relationship simultaneously.

    I love how similar this is to the BEFORE TRILOGY on the surface but far more layered philosophically and infinitely more blurred when it comes to the reality of the relationship itself.

  3. Anna

    Thanks for your thoughtful review. I found this movie by accident and had no idea what to expect when I watched it. So, the question of whether they were strangers play-acting to resolve their own marriage issues or were actually married was bothering me so much that I googled explanations while I was watching it and came to your page! I like your conclusion that they are both married and not married (have you read ‘the end of Mr y’? I think you’d like it – lots of metaphysical questions).
    However by the end of the movie I didn’t believe there was any way they could be married. I believe that they are married in a purely metaphorical sense, kind of acting as representatives for married couples, debating the fundamentals of marriage at the same time as working out their individual issues and using each other as sounding boards.
    Firstly, the son didn’t fit with them actually being married. He didn’t refer to James as his father at the beginning and just teased his mum for liking him. Her appearing to like him could have been a genuine excitement and anticipation of the intellectual role playing she wanted to initiate – I know people who get really excited about a good debate! But also, James appeared genuinely surprised at the first instance of the role playing and then after being slightly confused, appeared to choose to continue it. I think if they were really married the whole day would have played out very differently. It’s really interesting to think about how it might have played out though.

  4. rdk

    Perhaps the hint many viewers missed is James’ response to her probing of his recollections. He reminded her of his poor memory. He remembers seeing a woman and a boy five years prior, and that this stirred his contemplations that resulted in his book. Their relationship could include him having dementia or some other memory disorder or brain injury. The entire afternoon, and, in particular, the dramatic sequencing of chiming at the end could have served to spark some recognition in him of her, his wife.

  5. Daniyal

    This was an excellent writeup.
    Roger Ebert, while discussing Certified Copy in their review, mentioned “Blow up” and “The Adventure” by Antonioni.
    I’m planning to give those two a watch as well.

  6. Phil Sykes

    In addition to the intriguing mystery of the plot, the style of this film is incredibly interesting and challenging. There is something quirky, and often relevant happening in the background of almost every shot and the use of reflections to show characters’ expressions and other off camera details is brilliant.
    The performances of Juliet Binoche and William Shimmell are beautifully nuanced which helps to make the surreal nature of the story even more of a brain teaser. The only thing that I found jarring was the behaviour of Jack in the trattoria. It seemed quite out of character with his demeanor in the rest of the story (almost a stereotype of the ugly English tourist).

  7. Eric

    Thanks for this write up. My wife and I just watched it and we’re trying to sort it out. Here are a couple of odd statements in the movie that must be clues: The son makes a big deal about the mother not telling James his last name. Then, at one point, she says she wasn’t well then, talking about 5 years before. Not completely sure what those mean but pretty sure they’re clues.
    Also, it was interesting that the ending was also vague. Did James leave the bathroom and stay with She? Did he leave for the train?
    I agree with you that they are both or maybe it just doesn’t matter. It’s the trip that’s important.

  8. Tom

    Wow, people really keep finding this article and have been commenting sporadically for a couple years now. After watching it once, then going back and re-watching several key scenes, I’m fairly certain that, while it’s definitely left open-ended and vague, there are several reasons to believe that they ARE married with a son, and that the first half is a bit of role playing, meant to try to recapture lost romantic feelings after an aborted 15th anniversary the night before. A simple fan would not be so easily frustrated by and be so critical of James’s words and actions in the first half. Or even moved to tears by several things he says in the second half. I think the son called him “James” because he has basically no relationship with him, to the point that the son looks at James as more of his mother’s boyfriend. Also, the fact that “She” gets so upset about the son mentioning his surname is another tip-off that there is a pre-existing relationship between James and the son. There are other signs that confirmed my hypothesis, but these are the two biggest.

  9. Amber J Unthank

    At the beginning she arrives late and goes to the front and sits in a special seat with a note next to his right hand man. Now I am unable to make what the note says but I have never been to a book signing that has super fans sitting that close to the editor. Also her son goes right to the front just like an authors son would. No other child would of been able to be allowed to do that. The rest of the entire auditorium was packed and the speech gave the impression that he was a very important author. I believe she is his wife and the boy is his son. If they were not they would not have been able to make that much noise and commotion during when James the author is speaking. Also if she was just a super fan and paying through the nose for special seats she wouldn’t of left after 5 minutes just because her son was hungry. That is my take. Figured it out in less than 20 minutes. Liked it a bunch though. Seemed real instead of watching them act.

  10. Em

    I think they were not married, the biggest clue is the coffee shop where they entered as polite acquaintances and left as a married couple of 15 years. They each looked a bit taken aback when they were first referred to as a married couple – why would a genuine married couple do that? And then you can see them consciously take their roles as husband and wife, tentatively checking details with each other etc.
    The other clues were there in the beginning She had a reserved seat at the talk because she has an art shop/gallery in the town and might be well connected due to her job/interests. James had been staying ‘upstairs’ in the hotel where the talk was being held. Why did She get the editor guy to send a message to James to meet her? The son teases her about her crushes. She doesn’t appear to be a super fan, she was very interested in his book’s message, and quite critical of it overall but she was excited to talk to him about it. If they were married, why talk about the book THAT day during his visit to the town and not before in all the time he was writing it? She had to spell her sister’s name when he was signing the books. She paid for the books…
    She played the role of married partner particularly well, while James fairy awkwardly went along with it. His refusal to have his picture taken with the young couple is telling, because he knew it was inappropriate. He barely touched She in the hotel room, but showed consideration for her jacket. He didn’t want to be physical or lead her on, she saw this as a rejection and played the neglected wife. In the end, it was clear the game was coming to an end. She wanted him to love her, James had to catch his train.

  11. Steve

    I haven’t watched this great little film in a while, but I remember thinking when the credits rolled that James and “She” were having a years-long affair (15 to be exact), and that they met from time-to time when the opportunity arose. They have a child together that he acknowledges as his, and the son isn’t aware that the man is his father. He loves her, but at the end of the day (at 9:00 PM in this instance) he always goes home to his “real” family. “She” and the son were his “other” family – a copy of the original. That’s why “She” was so interested in his newest book, as it explored a theme close to her heart. Was their relationship illegitimate because it wasn’t an authentic marriage, or because he had a second family? Perhaps I’m far off the mark but it made sense at the time.

  12. Sam Bartlett

    I love all the responses and I know this probably won’t get seen by anyone, but this is my interpretation of their relationship and the surface narrative. Their entire relationship is happening over the course of a single day. They met, begin dating, in the coffee shop scene is where they begin to question marriage as an option. They get married (all the married couples around them in that place (also his unwillingness to get his picture taken could be his regret about the marriage as he isn’t always emotionally or physically available)). And as the rest of it play out, they get older, argue, and then the ending is them coming to terms with their relationship, they’ve lost the good years. Whether he walks back in to see her or out the door is up to our interpretation. Much like with Taste Of Cherry with how the people of differing ages represents the different aspects of his own decision, the people around them can represent their stage of their relationship. Most notably with her son at the start, then the young married couples, the older couple giving him advice, and then the older yet couple when they walk out of the church towards the end.
    I notice a lot of things done with reflection, and that can go into that same thing, just making us take notice of the reflections in the outside world, and also with their theory of copies, as stated all through this article. I really enjoyed this movie, and while I don’t think there’s any clear answer, I think that’s the point. Very excited to be watching it again in the future!


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