Spoilers galore. Don’t continue if you haven’t seen Certified Copy, though you really should watch it regardless of whether or not you decide to read my essay.
The film begins simply enough. A British writer, on tour in Tuscany to discuss his new book, meets up with a Frenchwoman to roam through the city’s rustic locales. She is apparently his fan, judging by the six copies of his book which she’s bought and which he autographs at her request. They exchange polite conversation, and though we sense tension between them, we think little of it. He’s a professional big-name, after all, and she an art groupie of sorts – we expect him to be a little aloof and her a little flustered. Cue plot twist. He is James, she is Elle, and they have been married for fifteen years. What we’d construed as professional distance had in fact been the emotional gulf between a husband and wife so estranged from one another that they interact as strangers meeting for the first time – the first half of the film was constructed in such a way that makes both interpretations possible. Aside from demonstrating the film’s meticulous screenplay and impeccable performances, this plot twist reveals Certified Copy’s exploration of subjective interpretation, in the realms of both art and human relationships. Specifically, the movie merges these two areas: the first becomes an allegory of the second in the way both are informed by the biased perspectives we bring to them. The variability in the way characters interpret art in the film becomes a parallel to the contrasting views Elle and James have of their relationship. When the plot twist occurs, revealing that we have been misled, it reveals both our and cinema’s perspectives to be suspect as well, a further echo of the characters’ plight. By aligning us with the characters in this way, the film encourages our empathy for them, becoming a larger statement on cinema’s capacity as a vehicle for compassion.
On the level of its diegesis, Certified Copy uses art to allegorize the complexity of human relationships. Just as we all impose our own unique interpretation onto an artwork, an interpretation shaped by our prejudices and predispositions, so we bring our unique perspective to each relationship we enter. We interpret the other person through the murky filter of our own subjectivity, unable to fully empathize with the other because we are fundamentally separate, egocentric individuals. Certified Copy makes us aware of this allegorical connection by populating its diegesis with artwork upon artwork, as well as abundant dialogue about the mutability of art’s meaning with respect to individual interpretation. Fittingly, the moment when James and Elle discuss the statue of the man and the woman prefaces the point when their argument becomes truly heated. In the sculpture, Elle sees the image of romantic perfection whereas James sees a fanciful piece of sentimental garbage. Their interpretations are misaligned in much the same way their interpretations of each other are. The subsequent argument scene is harrowing because it demonstrates their utter inability to comprehend the other’s position.
This disconnect between Elle and James is further emphasized by their distinctive use of language. She is French, he is English. They can both speak the other’s native tongue, but for the first part of the film, only she attempts to bridge the language barrier. This speaks volumes of their relationship. She makes the effort to reach out to him, to rekindle the passion of their earlier years, but he remains distant, physically and emotionally abroad for work-related reasons as well as reasons unknown. Later in the movie, James begins expressing himself in French, but even then, most of his conversations with Elle in the latter half of the film are bilingual: she’d speak in French, he’d respond in English. This second act of the movie follows the plot twist and, like the twist, is all about revelation. The truth of the couple’s inability to communicate with each other is exposed here – for fifteen years, they’ve been unable to get through to one another because, in a sense, they’ve been speaking two different languages. Really, both Elle and James are abroad in Certified Copy: the story is set in Italy rather than England or France. This geographical displacement evokes the emotional displacement the two characters experience – neither is at home in this relationship.
True human connection arises from trying to navigate around our differences, our broken means of communication, in order to find that which is the same: our shared identity as flawed, vulnerable people, each with our own insecurities and obsessions but all of us needing to be understood. It would seem that cinema is the perfect way to encourage this connection. As the late Roger Ebert said, “movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts” in the degree to which they give us access into lives apart from our own. Cinema grants us a perspective of the world not available to us in real life, following one character than the next, or perhaps multiple characters simultaneously, taking us deep into the stories of strangers. The experience of day-to-day living involves just one perspective – yours – whereas to lose yourself at the movies is to break free of this single viewpoint and engage new ways of looking, seeing, and thinking. Great cinema is an art of compassion. It makes us aware of the needs of others that we recognize in ourselves but seldom think to extrapolate to those around us. A great movie makes you both understand and feel understood.
In this sense, Certified Copy is truly cinematic. It is a work of profound compassion realized through incisive writing and searing performances. But it also acknowledges that cinema itself is a perspective, an interpretation. This is most compellingly demonstrated through the plot twist, which causes us to completely reevaluate the first hour of the film. At first glance, it appears this jarring narrative development debunks the cinema-as-empathy-machine argument, an assertion that depends on the ability of the cinematic image to show, to reveal. Here, the camera is useless – despite filming nearly an hour of conversation between James and Elle, we fail to realize that they are husband and wife until it is made explicitly clear to us through the dialogue. Upon a second viewing, we discover that all the clues to the reality of their relationship had been there all along, but because we’d been dropped into the story in media res, we lacked context and were thus led astray. Cinema-as-empathy-machine is defined by a search for this context, the details that would help us understand a character’s life story, but as Certified Copy demonstrates from the very beginning, even the seeming objectivity of the film image can miss the true nature of things. Watching Kiarostami’s film, I was reminded of found footage horror classic The Blair Witch Project and Michael Haneke’s brilliant Caché. Though radically different from Certified Copy in many respects, both movies also explore the ways in which imaging technology fails us, subverting the idea that the film image is an omnipotent representation of reality.
Why does the film call attention to itself in this way? Why does it intentionally break cinematic immersion, the very thing that won the medium the badge of greatest empathy machine? My theory is that, by presenting the authenticity of the film image as merely another interpretation of things, Kiarostami actually reminds us of our humanity. Just as the characters misunderstand one another, so Kiarostami causes us to misunderstand them, revealing the fallibility of both our perspective and the camera’s in one swoop. Contrary to typical postmodern gestures of self-referentiality, which tend to negate human elements in favor of an ironic consideration of narrative, the reflexivity in Certified Copy actually strengthens our connection with its characters. Because the film implicitly equates our limited perspective to that of Elle and James, the story becomes empathetic in a whole new way. Though Kiarostami distances us from the story with the twist, he also explains the reason for this distance, and that reason is our shared humanity with the characters and to him, an artist and a human being. In this manner, our engagement with the movie becomes almost participatory – we experience a version of the story’s central conflict even as we are watching the movie unfold, and thus we are pulled back into the narrative with greater insight than before.
This sense of audience engagement by way of self-referentiality is powerfully demonstrated by a striking pair of tableaux-style shots that take place in the second half of the film. The first occurs when Elle freshens up in a public restroom in preparation for a romantic dinner. While she applies lipstick and puts on earrings, she is presumably looking into a mirror, except the camera is positioned where the mirror would have been. Although she doesn’t look directly into the camera, the fact that she is facing us – and in close-up at that – implicitly acknowledges our presence. The second shot – and the film’s final image – is composed in almost exactly the same way: James steps into a hotel restroom to wash his hands, and we know there must be a mirror above the sink except, once again, the camera is where the mirror would have been, so he ends up more or less gazing into the camera. This mirrored composition (pun intended, by me and possibly Kiarostami as well) can be read in at least two ways, the first of which ties back to the empathy-inducing powers of cinema. When you look into a mirror, you see your reflection. This fact has long been exploited as a now-tired metaphor for tortured self-reflection, except Certified Copy changes things up because we are now the mirror. Such scenes of mirror-staring typically employ an over-the-shoulder shot of the character’s back along with his/her face in reflection, but here, we have oddly appropriated the position of the reflector. Do the arithmetic and you’ll find that, where a person would see themselves in the mirror, perhaps the characters figuratively see themselves in us or, more accurately, Kiarostami is telling us that aspects of Elle and James are reflected in us all. It’s a subtle but compelling invitation for us to connect with the characters in our shared humanity.
The second reading of this scene accounts for the fact that these two shots are the only instances in which James and Elle are each given time by themselves. Everywhere else in the movie, the two are either together or in the company of others – in most scenes, we know the events we see are also witnessed in some capacity by other characters in the diegetic world. When James shares with Elle the anecdote of the boy and his mother, we obviously know that she is listening, but snippets of their conversation probably also reach the ears of the waitress and the other customers in the diner. During this scene, the camera’s perspective is akin to that of a character inhabiting the movie’s public space, privy to the characters’ conversation only because it is physically near them – if the waitress had sat down next to James at the table, she would have heard and seen the same things we did.
This all seems perfectly unremarkable until it is contrasted by the two shots in the restrooms, where there are no other characters, no one around to watch. And yet we continue to look on. At this point, Certified Copy may seem poised to denounce cinema as an enabler of voyeurism, but the tone of the shots isn’t meant to invoke guilt but rather intimacy. No harm comes to the characters through our viewing, nor does the film condemn our gaze in any way. On the contrary, in perfect harmony with the film’s exploration of failed communication, it seems that Elle and James have literally turned to face us in these shots, silently imploring us to understand their struggles because no one else does. Whereas most movies draw attention to our spectatorial position to distance us, Certified Copy makes the act of viewing personal. It reveals the vast potential for compassion in cinema by making us aware of the privileged perspective movies provide, one not accessible to the individual characters living their diegetic lives. In a place of remove, we are able to see things more clearly. Once the truth is glimpsed, however, the film’s penetrating pathos draws us back into the characters’ story.
The title of this story, “Certified Copy”, is taken from the name of James’ book, which he presents at the start of the film while on tour. In his book, he argues that a copy of something is valuable insofar as it leads us to the original. His argument is made in relation to imitation in art, but James later extends the argument to the so-called “original” works of art themselves, saying that all art is fundamentally a copy because it itself is merely a representation of something real. This extension to James’ point fits Certified Copy beautifully. For although the movie is a construction, a copy of real life – the plot twist accentuates this fact by calling attention to both the mechanisms of the screenplay and the actors’ meticulously modulated performances – it directs us to manifold truths, both regarding human relationships and the deep moving power of cinema as a facilitator of empathy. Kiarostami’s film is especially keen on guiding us to the “original” through its singular use of traditional distancing methods of self-referentiality to ironically make us participants in its world and it a participant in ours. It doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but it lays out the narrative of humanity and encourages us to observe and interpret. And so begins our path to understanding.