Occasionally, the selection process of Criterion becomes the subject of controversy. This is usually related to the films they select (see: Armageddon, Tiny Furniture) rather than the films they pass on, since the rights negotiations are often kept secret until films are actually announced. Certified Copy was the subject of a rare non-release controversy, however, as a rumored exchange between one internet poster and Criterion's Peter Becker revealed that the latter supposedly considered the film "minor Kiarostami." A few months later, when Criterion did finally announce the film's imminent release, they referred to it as "a major work" on their Twitter account, a sly nod to the uproar caused by the rumor.
As someone who had yet to see the film - and who had admired Kiarostami's other works in the Collection, particularly Close-up - I listened to the complaints with a great deal of interest, and was excited to see the film announced if only because it made my drive to see the film that much stronger. After watching it, I can see what all the fuss was about: Certified Copy deserves a place alongside L'Avventura and Last Year at Marienbad as one of the great cinematic mysteries in the Collection.
The basic premise is as simple as the one at the center of those films: an author comes to Italy to give a talk on his new book where he meets up with a woman who was interested in speaking with him about his thesis. They engage with each and take a brief excursion around the countryside a la Before Sunrise/Before Sunset. As their meeting goes on and the film gets deeper, there begins to seem like there is more to their relationship than has been revealed.
I won't go too far into the "Are they or aren't they" debate at the center of the movie; needless to say there are bits and pieces here or there which make the case either way, and I don't think that's the point of the film any more than the end of The Sopranos was about whether or not Tony died. Certified Copy is about the nature of art just as much as it is about the nature of relationships. The film has an oddly cool tone that is countered perfectly by a consistent struggle by the two leads to break through and make an emotional connection. This effort is much more obviously made by Juliette Binoche, who once again gives a spectacular performance. But William Shimell's character is the more interesting specimen, and his emotional arc in the film is much more difficult to pin down. On the surface, his demeanor matches the film's tone, particularly at the beginning when he seems to be simply passing time before his train. But regardless of one's opinion about the nature of their relationship, there must be a point at which Shimell's character is no longer along for the ride, to observe and dissect - or perhaps, depending on your viewpoint, merely dismiss and ignore - his companion. If he is playing along with her, what is his fascination with their game? If he has conversely finally given up their charade, is his contempt an indication of his failure or of hers?
The movie is deepened by the questions of authenticity that are presented at face value. Just as we question the nature of their relationship, we question the nature of the film. This uncertainty is doubled over on itself by the intellectual argument within the film that the fake can be just as satisfying as the real - even more so. Like the ending of Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry, this film is constantly reassuring the viewer that they are watching a movie. The fact that our protagonists have become unreliable midway through the film only enhances this reminder. Again, the film doubles over on itself, exponentially increasing its layers until all that is left are the questions.
Like Last Year at Marienbad, Certified Copy is a movie that needs to be seen more than once to fully digest it, and I plan on watching it again soon. For now, the questions linger in my head, and Kiarostami's unique eye and amazing ability to mine new material out of arguments that many consider passe (or at least precious) continues to impress me.