The performance of Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy -as a woman in love with the image of love and wishing she had it in her own life- won her the Best Actress award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. It is an honor well-earned. Her American English is impeccable, except when she stumbles slightly orating a slang term for sex, which is likely not something she would say as herself. One can hardly take one’s eyes off her, for her character is so beguiling. But it’s why her character is so beguiling that reveals the major flaw of this film.
The central premise of Certified Copy is that “in art, issues of authenticity are irrelevant, because every reproduction is itself an original and vice versa.” How the two main characters revolve around that philosophy in their lives is supposed to be the story. I wish I could say that this movie was successful in selling me on this idea, for the story it presents can’t happen with the characters in this movie.
The characters are the authenticity of any movie or it doesn’t work. These characters in Certified Copy -authentic in and of themselves- are not a good fit for the events portrayed, and which are also authentic in and of themselves. Each set works, just not together. Just like the couple that Binoche and her co-star portray. The movie is thus a metaphor for itself.
Binoche plays an unnamed French woman living in Tuscany with her son, who is involved in some close but undefined way with an author named James Miller, played by British opera singer William Shimell. Shimell’s character is cold and aloof and openly rebuffs Binoche’s character repeatedly through snide comments and a wall of diffidence about her. Yet he is clearly entranced by something about her, something which he resents for its pull on him. The film never quite explains why they should be attracted to each other, but I was struck by how little they had to build a relationship upon in the first place. It is the nagging fact which ruins what should have been an entrancing tale of a couple who lost each other and is trying to get that special connection back.
Binoche’s character spends the entire movie attempting to to do. She takes Miller to a museum to see a work of art that was once considered original until the real original was identified. But because the quality of the copy was deemed excellent, it is treated as a work of fine art in its own right. The purpose for showing Miller this work, which he doesn’t seem to appreciate in any form, is to show him that the art world agrees with the premise of Miller’s latest book (the quoted passage in the second paragraph). The bonding attempt thus fails.
She then takes Miller to various places of picturesque beauty while attempting to bridge the gap between them. She glows over couples about to get married while he clearly wants nothing to do with the whole topic. She takes him for coffee, where a phone call interrupts their conversation and provides an opening for the cafe owner to tell Binoche’s character that while her “husband” Miller may not be very good to her, he has given her married status – the “reproduction” of the “original” which clearly isn’t working. It is enough, implies the cafe owner, to settle for. Binoche’s character plays along despite there clearly being no wedding ring on her hand, yet the wise old Italian woman doesn’t seem to notice? The scene is vital to understanding what comes next, but that detail forces the authenticity of the scene.
Up to this point, it still isn’t clear just what relationship these two have while it is just as clear that there is one. Yet the portrayals shift abruptly as they leave the cafe, from two people interested in each other for some still unexplained reason to two people whose relationship is broken, each blaming the other for the loss. Did the reproduction relationship cease to be sufficient and now each has to take up the original?
This is where the movie loses me, for I can’t see these two being together for 15 minutes much less 15 years and a child. James Miller would never agree to be married, especially to such a romantic. He’s too busy, and has a strictness regarding what he lets into his life. He had mentioned to Binoche’s character in an early scene that he doesn’t keep things -even things of value- unless it has a function in his life at that time. She clearly has no such function, and it isn’t clear that she ever did. The movie never gets around to revealing what it is about her that attracts him enough to deviate from that attitude.
Binoche’s woman wouldn’t accept Miller not being an active part of her Happily Ever After fantasy. He has to be very close and proximate at all times, just like an eldery couple she observes, or else he isn’t there for her. The movie never gets around to revealing what she once saw in him and why she still tries to keep him in her life despite his repeated rejections. Yet the viewers are expected to believe that these two are a couple?
This isn’t to say that Certified Copy isn’t worth seeing. It’s a tribute to the acting skills of the principals (Shimell’s first movie acting role) that they are believable as a multilingual bickering couple. So the script is to blame for all the logical flaws contained within. If anything, Certified Copy can be seen as the artistic and estimable reproduction of the original portrayals of damaged relationships performed by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, such as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Peter Bradshaw, film critic for The Guardian, said of Certified Copy, “It is a film that is pregnant with ideas…”. It would have been nice if one of them was carried to term. It would have helped to alleviate my greatest problem with the film, for as Bradshaw noted, Certified Copy is like “the work of a highly intelligent and observant space alien who still has not quite grasped how Earthlings actually relate to each other.” I won’t attempt to reproduce the original, for I couldn’t match the authenticity.
But I do recommend seeing Certified Copy anyway for the performances of Binoche and Shimell. Treat them as works of fine art in their own right.