Zachary Zahos’s review published on Letterboxd:
I try to be stingy about the ratings I dole out on this website. Look at my 2014 film diary and you will see few 5/5 stars - even Tropical Malady is getting by with 4.5/5 for no good reason (might go change that actually...). I fear revisiting those films to which I hastily threw the highest honors upon first joining this site, since I know I have grown more discerning, or at least more curmudgeonly, over the past few repertory-fueled months. All that said, Certified Copy is one of the handful of movies where five stars feels like not enough. Off the top of my head, Mulholland Dr., 2001, Kiarostami's Close-Up and little else provoke a similar response. 5 Stars out of 5? And no more?
Like those mentioned films, all concoctions of this strange brew of narratively ambiguous yet formally rigorous art cinema that I love most, Certified Copy overwhelms us with a flood of little details — of lines, gestures, and camera placements — often directly contradicting one another. We are led to entertain multiple interpretations of its plot, until it is over — then we need to choose a side, cuz geez there were people on-screen talking and walking and drinking coffee and they can't be multiple versions of themselves at the same time. Kiarostami was filming reality - a scripted reality, sure, but a grounded one, too, that obeys the laws of physics...right?
What's so pleasurable about this film is that it disabuses us, however fleetingly, of that notion — that life perpetuates on a single plane, that people grumble along without a hand in shaping their image, that art is either one thing or nothing at all. This is a film about literary theory as much as it is about James Miller and an unnamed French woman played by Juliette Binoche. But what makes Certified Copy startlingly unpretentious, even when its two main characters are European elites, is that it steers away from its characters' abstract philosophizing about art and applies those same hermeneutics to the far more treacherous terrain of human relationships, where choices are almost always spurred by the subconscious, where "form" and "systems of meaning" do not really apply. Kiarostami's genius is that he embeds this illuminating and, to my eyes and ears at least, unprecedented commentary within the - wait for it - text that is this film. Tricky, this guy.
I don't have time to run through all the details that I noticed on only this second viewing, but we're here right now and I want to run through a main thread that fascinated me:
Mirrors, obviously. When James first meets Binoche (can we just call her that here?), the camera spins around to catch an incredible composition where James stands to the left of the frame and Juliette is reflected, in miniature, in a small circular mirror by the frame's lower right. She is effectively on display for James in her antique shop, where he makes no effort to hide his disinterest ("What's wrong with my shop?" she first asks him in their subsequent car ride). Whether James was a former lover who spent a romantic night 15 years ago with her (meaning much of the beginning is tricky role play) or they never met before the events of this film (meaning the second part is mostly performance - I lean toward this interpretation), Binoche must fix whatever obsolete impression she is first giving off. She fawns over young brides and grooms, muses over the Muse Polimnia painting applicable to James' theory and applies earrings and lipstick, all in an effort to restore a missing vitality, both sensual and intellectual, that she feels he feels is missing.
And he, in turn, refuses to acknowledge this mirror version of himself, which is of course ironic given the concept's relevance to his acclaimed book. He does not give in to the performance she requires of him, which seeks to prove not only his theory about copies (here, of a marriage) being as rich and "authentic" as the original, but of free will, too. The Before Sunset-like narrative pressure of impending travel threatens for the performance to remain only that: a performance, where the actors stay at arm's length from their characters and leave with little knowledge, gained or lost. Yet on the flip-side, infusing improvisational fakery (Binoche improvises elaborate memories to fight over at first, and James soon joins in with a more stilted performance that I believe some critics confused for unintentional bad acting on William Shimell's part) with one's own history and convictions adds a good dose of entropy to the future: when you "copy" yourself, so to speak, and move forward with a romance that may not be deeply felt — as I truly believe James does after the final shot, after stroking his hair in front of the mirror/audience, coming to appreciate the duality/multiplicity of his existence as not just James Miller but an untold number of texts of James Miller — if you do all that, what happens to your original? Would a fling with Binoche after leaving the restroom be the end of it, and would he still catch his 9 p.m. ride? Or would he continue to go along with it, maybe finally fooling himself into believing their love is genuine and forgetting about his earlier doubts? Does love work any other way?
I was talking about mirrors, I know, and I believe the series of bride and groom doppelgängers provide a map with which to read this film. A chatty, composed couple mirrors the two of them in the first shot after the coffee shop; then an ebullient couple requesting both Binoche and James' blessing, followed by a forlorn bride-to-be who takes James' seat and trembles at her fiancé's touch (on her shoulder!!) in that same shot; then a middle-aged-to-older couple whose husband sees through Binoche's awkward small talk and advises James to heal things with just a gentle touch, which comes to be notoriously obscured by a tree; then that ebullient couple again, never happier but muted and hard-of-hearing behind a sheet of glass, never less palpable, more textual, like a museum piece or *ding!* movie character; then the elderly couple leaning on one another as they hobble out of a church, thoughtlessly and ineffably in love. There is a world of mirror images out there, and they all contradict each other yet appear to co-exist. Choose if you must, which pair is most analogous to James and Binoche; I hope to imagine that the brains, and luxury of time, it seems, the two of them share will find a way to realize every single iteration, at once and for all time. They'll just have to try and pretend the act is real, and stick with it.