To engage with something critically is to assume, despite any post-structural handwringing, that the works with which we’re engaged contain some essential truth. That’s the conceit of all criticism: beyond projections of the reader, the personal prisms through which X looks like Y and vice versa, we’re required to expect, or at the very least hope, that art has meaning and that this meaning is fixed. This assumption is useful in so far as it transforms speculation into interpretation, an act which commands authority. And it’s useful because, as long as we still allow for basic interpretative wiggle room, this supports the longstanding notion that a work’s meaning is derived from its capital-A artist, whose intentions it is the responsibility of the critic to discern.
Of course we know better than to submit to that assumption totally: We understand that this privileges the reading of the artist over the readings of others arbitrarily, and that the artist is only a good—not necessarily the best—reader of his or her own work. We get that “intentions” are dubious at best and completely misleading at worst, and we know meaning is never fixed. But to what degree are our opinions on a given work of art influenced by the context in which they exist? We can never ignore context completely, and we can never read a work untainted by the inevitable everything-else that informs it. That’s where our assumption, our tacit appeal to some essential truth, always trips us up: We get duped by the givens, the requisite questions so basic that we don’t even consider how problematic they might be. What country is this from? What year was this made? Who is the director of this film?
Meaning itself we can accept as a problematic concept, something we can never quite pin down. But factual information we accept at face value. This information seeps into our conception of a film, and as it does, our reading of it—and what we can determine of that meaning changes entirely. Which isn’t to say that we’re lacking a kind of desirable purity of reading—movies simply don’t exist in a vacuum—but that our interpretation of a given film is being affected more significantly by certain accepted contextual factors than we’re maybe aware of, and that we ought to consider the implications of those regular, seemingly unavoidable influences. If I write that, say, La Dolce Vita is an Italian film, one might think that I’m stating a basic fact about the country of that film’s origin. But to say that La Dolce Vita is an Italian film in fact means quite a lot more: it refers to the long, rich history of Italian cinema, and also to the long, rich history of Italy more generally. It means something to say that La Dolce Vita is an Italian film: it lends meaning to that film, affecting the way we watch it, the way we interpret it. This is a simple fact but it is more than that, too—it’s another prism through which the film will appears different than it would through any other.
So what, if anything, would it mean to say that Certified Copy—the 2011 film by esteemed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, which is set in Tuscany, stars French actress Juliette Binoche and British singer William Shimell, is a French, Italian, and Belgian co-production, and features dialogue in English, French, and Italian—is a French film, if we could even bother making that distinction? Movie-indexing websites and databases, being fact-oriented and meticulous, must formally classify it as the product of some nation (most seem to agree that it must be either Iranian, French, Italian, or some combination of those three, though it might as well be Canadian, so muddled is its provenance). And so begins the first of Certified Copy‘s great many deconstructions. This is a film which deals principally with authenticity, meaning, and interpretation, and its first attempt to tackle those issues occurs before the opening credits even roll: with the markers of its origin spread across half a dozen countries, it asks you to consider the implications of ‘national cinema’ before you have a chance to approach it through any one national lens. This film doesn’t want you to be duped by the givens; it wants you to be acutely aware—and you become increasingly so as the narrative progresses and explicates these ideas clearly—of all that goes into our interpretation of meaning. It wants to reveal to you your assumptions.
On the surface, Certified Copy is a film about two people—an unnamed antiques dealer (played to exactly the correct degree of extremity by Binoche, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance) and a writer named James Miller (Shimell) who lacks conviction in the central thesis of a book he’s visiting Tuscany to promote, which posits that privileging authentic works of art over their forgeries has no real aesthetic or philosophical basis. These two people, across the first half of the film at least, appear to be meeting one another for the first time—but at about the halfway point, they begin acting as though they have been married for years.
Subverting established character identities and relationships proposes that what we understand about a given character or story is derived largely from speculation and assumption, from conclusions drawn by observing cues and conventions that are never as fixed and definitive as we assume them to be.
Certified Copy is about surface understandings, about our relationship as viewers and readers to surfaces and about the influence of context on our interpretation of them. The “reality” in which this film’s narrative is grounded, the real identities of these characters, and the true nature of their relationship, is an ongoing but misguided debate. In the same way that in response to its central mystery, Michael Haneke’s Cache substituted a profound metaphysical answer for a narratively coherent (or more conventionally satisfying) one, Certified Copy provides us with answers which transcend the more superficial narrative questions that frame them. Whether the film’s protagonists are or are not married—that is, whether the characters are pretending to be an unfamiliar couple or whether they later pretend to be married, neither of which scenarios really cohere—is ultimately less significant than the idea that underlies it. Subverting established character identities and relationships proposes that what we understand about a given character or story is derived largely from speculation and assumption, from conclusions drawn by observing cues and conventions that are never as fixed and definitive as we assume them to be.
We can see that Miller’s revisionist championing of forgeries seems to stem from a distrust of the sort of perception-affecting context that makes authentic work “authentic” in the first place—of an approach to artworks which privilege outside details, details which do not, as he sees it, directly affect the aesthetic value of a work. When Binoche’s character brings Miller to an art gallery where a known forgery is on display precisely because it is a famous forgery, he is understandably unimpressed; he would prefer that the gallery not acknowledge that the work is a forgery to begin with, because even if the gallery is celebrating a forgery instead of an authentic work, publicly recognizing that distinction just reinforces the privileged position of the authentic work. Miller’s idea goes beyond simply championing a fake, and so to does the film go beyond simply presenting an alternate narrative reality—the point is that by refusing to finalize a grounded reality altogether, rather than simply replacing one established reality with another, opposing reality, the idea of a coherent, stabilized reality no longer becomes a priority. It’s at this point that we no longer hold onto a false notion of a central, essential truth; we let go of the assumptions that trip us up. Certified Copy liberates meaning from the otherwise inevitable questions we can’t help asking.
It’s tempting to refer to Kiarostami’s earlier explorations of authenticity and meaning, particularly his masterful deconstruction of the boundary between fiction and documentary filmmaking, Close Up, which sought to destabilize our convictions in art and criticism in a related sense. But any attempt to reconcile Kiarostami, the artist, with Certified Copy, the artwork, seems itself a problematic endeavor: how great is the influence of our knowledge of Kiarostami’s filmography on our interpretation of Certified Copy itself? This question becomes especially interesting when we begin to think about the implications of one of Iran’s most prominent filmmakers directing a film which ostensibly has nothing to do with Iran—does the conspicuous lack of an Iranian presence in a film otherwise teeming with multiculturalism itself have something to say, in its very absence, about the Iranian people and culture, or are we just leaning on outside context in a problematic way once more?
Critics have been quick to observe the similarities between Certified Copy‘s disenchanted lovers roaming the Italian streets and some of the more famous peripatetic couples of film history, but the reflections are deliberate and made with a clear purpose in mind: Certified Copy copies art with which it expects we’ll be familiar—Rossellini’s Journey to Italy comes up often, as does the similarly metaphysical Last Year At Marienbad and, of course, Antonioni’s La Notte (Shimell even looks, at times, like a modern Mastroianni)—stepping back not only for a broader meta-forgery, but also to incite further comparison, to draw more problematic, opinion-influencing context in toward itself. Certified Copy looks the part of art-films past but on a deeper level it borrows more from Barthes and Borges than any clear cinematic reference points; it is, quite masterfully, about what it means for us to watch, read, and compare. It’s about the central assumption of the whole critical enterprise, about what it means for us to interpret, or for a film to mean. If Cache‘s greatness came in part from what it had to say about the nature of the cinema, Certified Copy‘s comes from what it has to say about not just cinema, but art—all art, every work and expression we struggle to engage with.