If the couple featured in Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” got married, grew old, divorced and reunited, the resulting confrontation would probably look a lot like Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy.” Possibly the Iranian director’s most accessible work, this elegant, stream-of-consciousness movie takes place almost entirely within the constraints of a single two-person conversation. Humming along on the rhythm of its central dialogue, “Certified Copy” drags a minimalist romance down the rabbit hole of philosophical revelation.
The scene is Tuscany: “A copy leads us to the original,” says the author James Miller (British operatic baritone Williams Shimell), delivering a ruminative lecture in the very first shot. Having written an essay-length book with the same name as the movie, James lays out the general concept under which the next 106 minutes take place. “Certified Copy,” using mainly English and French (with a little Italian), puts communication under the microscope.
In the audience for the lecture is a woman named Elle (Juliette Binoche), whose history with James has yet to be clearly defined. Later, they meet in her gallery, go for a ride and end up strolling through the lively Italian streets as their background gradually becomes fleshed out. But nothing that happens between them is definite — at first it seems as though the two characters have never met before, and then suddenly they discuss their lives together as if it stretches back to years of intimacy and marital strife. The transition into this segment casts doubt on the authenticity of their delivery, suggest some element of role play, then slowly makes their past together seem more legitimate. It begs the obvious but wholly tantalizing question: Is this a copy of a couple or the real deal?
The set-up channels Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which scholars obsess over to this day. Benjamin believed that reproductions destroyed an art work’s original “aura,” the intrinsic quality that distinguished it from everything else. In “Certified Copy,” the aura of James and Elle’s marriage emerges from the details of their exchange. The question of whether it can be reproduced with their onscreen chatter, in real time, provides the movie with the energizing mystery at its core.
Before James and Elle begin their loquacious stroll, the author hints at narrative trickery afoot. “There’s nothing very simple about being simple,” he says. Indeed, “Certified Copy” takes a bare bones premise about as far as it can go. Multiple levels of performance come together at once: The duo visits a coffee shop, where the server makes several assumptions about their marriage as Elle plays along, or perhaps tells the truth. It’s a fascinatingly ambiguous situation that signals the movie’s overarching appeal. A comedy of remarriage buried in intellectual abstraction and cinephilic obsessions, “Certified Copy” wanders a bit but never loses focus, with the only certainty being that its gimmick is genuine.