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20111011-original-or-copy-by-jeffrey-overstreetThis is about a new film called Certified Copy. But it’s not a movie review.

It could be. I could describe the story. I could tell you about its awards and honors. I could assess the actors’ performances (Juliette Binoche is better than ever, and William Shimmel, an opera singer, is arresting in his first film role).

But no, I can’t treat Certified Copy with a movie critic’s typical detachment. I’m in love with it, you see. I’ll have seen it six or seven times by the end of the year. And I’m grateful for all that the filmmaker—Abbas Kiarostami—is revealing to me through this film.

Let me describe one of the early scenes:

A well-dressed Englishman (Shimmel) has descended a stairway into a small art gallery in Southern Tuscany. The art dealer, an attractive but anxious French woman (Binoche), watches as her customer examines original works and replicas.

Why is she nervous? Is it because her customer is an accomplished art critic? Is she a fan? Does she have a crush on him?

“We certainly have a shared interest here,” he muses, studying the art.

She disagrees. “I just ended up here by accident. I’m in the middle of all of these things, but I don’t really care about them.”

Approvingly, he says, “You should keep your distance. They’re attractive enough, but they can be bad for you.”

“Are you serious?” she laughs.

He is. He says that works of art can be dangerous. “I study them. I admire them. I write books about them. But I keep my distance too.”

He then confesses that he doesn’t keep works of art in his house. He prefers practical, useful things. If something isn’t useful to him “I just throw it out,” he says.

Just a casual chat in an art shop, right?

Not at all.

A few minutes later, she is taking this man on a drive through town. He just wants to observe, to meander, to travel with no destination. But she wants to take him somewhere—to a place of great importance to her.

The differences between these two strong personalities are obvious. Nevertheless, like a schoolgirl with a crush, she exclaims, “I cannot believe you are sitting in my car!”

Are they strangers? Old friends? Former lovers? Is this a seduction? The film is full of clues and suggestions.

For example, in the opening scene, the gallery owner shows up to hear the art critic read from his book. He argues that “originals” are no more valuable than “copies,” and that value is in the eye of the beholder.

And after he makes this speech, the movie teases us with all kinds of “originals” and copies.” Parents and children. Views and reflections. Paintings and copies.

Certified Copy is, in one sense, a two-hour mind game. The two lead characters carry on a film-length conversation that may remind you of Richard Linklater’s talk-heavy romances (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset). But the nature of their relationship is mysterious. The closer you look, the more mysterious it becomes.

In a pivotal scene, the man leaves the woman inside a café so that he can answer a call on his cell phone. The waitress strikes up a conversation with the woman, and it is clear that she thinks these two are married.

But wait—the gallery owner does not deny it. She speaks as if this man is her husband.

Perhaps she’s lying, just to avoid embarrassing the waitress for her mistake. Or, perhaps she’s fantasizing that this man is her husband because she likes him.

Watch closely. In the rest of the film, the two speak as if they are married, and as if that marriage is disintegrating. She wants it to work out. He wants to remain detached.

Are they each other’s “original” spouses? Or are they just stand-ins for two other people, role-playing in order to work through their own problems?

Watch the movie closely. Talk about these questions. Then watch it again.

Me? I don’t believe Kiarostami gives us a clear answer. I think there’s more evidence for one possibility than another, but I also know plenty of moviegoers who disagree with me.

But ultimately, I don’t need to answer the question. This movie isn’t really about “Are they or aren’t they married?” It’s about which reality we would prefer, and why. The movie puts us through vigorous intellectual exercises in order to expose our own priorities, personalities, and perspectives.

Are you more like the man, who likes to keep art—and women—at a distance, so he can “appreciate” them at no cost to himself? Or are you more like the woman, willing to get involved and pay the price of intimacy?

And this isn’t just about marriage.

The farther that this man and woman travel together, the more agitated—even despondent—he becomes. Weddings and churches make him anxious. We see him pause on the threshold of a bedroom in a hotel, as if he is terrified of intimacy with the woman who is now partially undressed. We also see him pause on the threshold of a church, a piece of bread in his hand, as if he is frightened of communion.

Should he put aside his pride, go inside, and become a part of something greater than himself? Or are these social conventions and religious rituals just the fading echoes of old-fashioned institutions? Do we romanticize marriage and faith out of sentimentality? Or are they relevant to us?

Faith. Art. Love. It’s all part of the same mysterious invitation. That invitation requires us to surrender control, make ourselves vulnerable, and pay a heavy price. But it also promises blessings that cannot come any other way.

I know which character has my sympathies.

Last week, Anne and I celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary. And we observed that marriage has been one of the costliest decisions of our lives. We also agreed that it has been one of the most rewarding decisions of our lives. Only faith has demanded more of us, and offered greater blessings.

The art critic is right: Beauty can be dangerous. You can keep your distance. Or you can look closer, and let it have its way with you.

No, this is not a movie review. It’s a love story. This is your invitation. I recommend you surrender.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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