Copy vs. Original

Kiarostami’s human touch


Copy vs. Original
by Ari Siletz

Ten interesting movies by really good directors don’t add up to one boring movie by Abbas Kiarostami. His film, Certified Copy, has given the world a new Mona Lisa’s Enigmatic Smile. Wondering whether the two film characters are really married or not, pivoting the work on a self-invented puzzle, quickly leads to yawns. Traditionally, Mona Lisa aficionados have in the same bland way burdened the great painting with an unimaginatively parroted enigma: what is she smiling about or who is she smiling at? The painting does not live off the reason for the smile, and Certified Copy does not live off the question of whether the man and woman are married. But ask the question, “Does it make a difference?” and suddenly the viewers mind is compelled to fall into lockstep with the film.

James Miller (played by William Shimell) is an art scholar who believes that the original and copy of a work of art have, or can be given, the same value. He has written a book around the idea and is in Tuscany for a book tour. There he meets a woman (played by Juliette Binoche) who runs an antique shop dealing in well-crafted copies. She offers to take Miller sightseeing around the nearby villages. While visiting cafes, restaurants, town squares and wedding chapels Miller is confronted with a real life application of his abstract idea regarding original vs. imitated: the two begin to act as a married couple.

There is no scene in which they agree to pretend, so we are free to assume a surreal transformation of the original plot in which the two were not married to one where they are married. Or we can fill in a scene where we actually watch the two art philosophers agree to craft a copy of a marriage so realistically that the heart is fooled, perhaps proving Miller’s point. Or we can delight in Kiarostami’s ambiguity and just leave the question alone, continuing to explore the alternating sensations as we switch from a view where the couple is really married (let’s call it the original) to a view where they are pretending (the copy). Meanwhile the film draws us to ask, when does reality matter, and when is it just an empty obsession where an illusion will do just as well?

To me, the film seemed to argue against Miller’s idea; how I felt about the characters changed radically as I switched from one plot to the alternative. When the couple is married, the woman—who remains nameless throughout the movie--comes across as a tragic character who believes she wants nothing from a husband except to have one, the only condition being that he stick around. Miller becomes an insensitive husband not only in his callousness and irresponsibility but also in not being able to see why he left his wife. The reasons are exposed as the woman’s character unfolds.

When I imagine that the man and the woman are playing a game, the woman comes across as an even more tragic character. She never got that nominally existent husband in her life, and now would settle for even a temporary illusion of one. In this scenario, Miller comes across as a compassionate man willing to accommodate her, perhaps also indulging his attraction to the woman and taking up her challenge of proving his own point to himself. William Schimell does a competent job with this superposed characterization, while Juliette Binoche stuns with the masterful way she matches her character(s) ambiguity by ambiguity. She won the Cannes Best Actress award for her brilliant performance.

Leaving the film here as a philosophical study of copy vs. original would be underestimating Kiarostami’s human touch. The various parallel interpretations each come with a full set of motives arising from love, anger, need, disillusionment, and the many other bittersweet lures of life. The film even stands strongly on its own as a thoughtful and poetic romance, albeit post-modern in its disregard for linearity. But taken in a didactic context Kiarostami did leave me wondering whether it is not safer for a person just to be a self-certified copy. That way we can award ourselves all the value of the original minus the headaches. Works for some of us!

"Certified Copy": Official trailer


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Thanks Ari

by ramintork on

Thanks for the editorial catch. Binoche is so brilliant she can do anything. As a challenge she did a staged dance performance with Akram Khan a few years ago.

Her comic moments were filled with dramatic tension which was appropriate for her role.


Anahid Hojjati

Ari, I think the average male poet

by Anahid Hojjati on

would put work in his relationship and you would find many male poets who would put as much work into relationships as women poets.  It takes a romantic man to be a poet so chances are that they would put work into relationships.  Also in addition to being romantic, poets are on average thoughtful people. It also depends on the everyday issues that the specific poet faces.

However, I don't have research to back this up. It is just a conclusion based on above sentences and some other facts of life.

Ari Siletz

Level of commitment

by Ari Siletz on

Anahid: what the reivew does not discuss is the film's bringing out the idea that the level of commitment (or sincerity) may be a factor in evaluating original vs. copy. The male poet is certainly committed to his work as much as the female poet. But in crafting relationships, is Hamid Mossadegh as artistic as the women in his life? Or does he merely comission the relationship (by asking her to marry him, for example) then sit back and let her do the real work of putting beauty into the relationship?


Ramintork: Many thanks for link to your review.  Interesting and valid point about the gender roles being close to those in the Iranian culture. I have a feeling a French actress for the role would find it easier to find common ground with the director in this regard than an American actress. 

What did you think of Binoche's potential as a comedy actress? Also, an editing catch while reading your review:William Shimell is the lead male actor; Peter Bradshaw is the film critic for the Guardian.


A wonderful film, I also reviewed this film.

by ramintork on

I also did a review of this film in my blog


I thought that Kiarostami working with a foreign crew had to find his foreign feet for this film but the end result was wonderful.


Anahid Hojjati

Ari, about your question

by Anahid Hojjati on

If I understand your question correcly, you want me to see the movie so I can tell you that if it is correct that perception of men and women are always different in art. I can tell you now that I don't believe this is the case. Many times, I feel closer to a man writer/poet than a woman. It depends on their outlook in life and their thinking. For instance, sometimes it happens that I read poems from Iranian poets like Hamid Mossadegh or others and I strongly identify with them. It is to the point that I tell myself that I could have written that poem only if I were a much better poet :). 

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Thank you for your valuable contribution to this review. You provide an informed background to the work from a film history angle. Also your thought that some of the dialog was what the audience wished to tell the characters was insightfully felt.

I am curious to hear from some women who have seen this movie. With Kiarostami you never know; one of his purposes in making this film may well have been to show how far apart the perceptions of men and women can be regarding a work of art--or anything for that matter. I avoided discussion of relationship themes in the movie--other directors have perhaps done a superior job--and focused on what was uniquely Kiarostami about the film. At least one woman reader was quite turned off by this approach. 

Anahdi: Looking forward to your take, if you happen to see it while this discussion is in progress. 

Anahid Hojjati

Interesting review Ari and I liked DK's comment too

by Anahid Hojjati on

Thanks Ari for your review. Seems like a good movie to watch. I also enjoyed reading Darius' comment, particularly where he writes:"I think Truffaut best defined the assumed contradictions of Hitchcock's filmmaking artform by saying that he filmed love scenes as if they were murder and would film murder scenes as if they were scenes of lovemaking."

Darius Kadivar

Enjoyed this film very much

by Darius Kadivar on

Great Review Ari Jaan,

I actually went and saw this film one summer afternoon with my mother shortly after the Cannes Release. Beyond the metaphors of the film what was the most interesting for me ( and my Mom) was the feeling we had once we left the movie theater.

It was as if we had actually spent a day in the company of the couple formed by Binoche and Shimell as if they were real life characters whom we had met and had witnessed their relationship for one long afternoon.

The Flirt, the seduction and the quarrels made us relate to each and every situation in an uncanny way.

I was equally charmed by the experience and felt uncomfortable as to not being able to bring solace or comfort to a couple's gradual marital disintegration.  

In a way the cameo presence of Jean Claude Carrière ( See below links to recognize him in the movie) Who tries to advise Shimell to be patient with his wife and appreciate each moment as if it were the last seemed to echo as what the audience wished to say or do in order to prevent the inevitable conclusion to the couple's troubled relationship.


As you may know the film's title and construction is in itself an indirect cinematic pirouette / Tribute to Rosselini's voyage to Italy, starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders ( Who for the morbid anecdote committed Suicide many years later) where Rosselini also flirts with the theme of copy in Art :

Viaggioin Italia (1954) | Roberto Rossellini

Another scene:



YouTube - Viaggio in Italia / Ingrid Bergman  


I look forward to seeing Kiarostami work more often with Non Iranian actors and non Iranian settings. Although received with mixed reviews including for the first time a harsh critic in Les Cahiers Du Cinema ( ironica given that Les Cahiers  used to be an unconditional supporter of most of Kiarostami's movies to date) I found on the contrary that this film was probably one of Kiarostami's best and most inspired films after Close Up.

I guess the French critics reserves ( despite the film's victory at Cannes) is due to the fact that this is not the first time the theme of copy vs original is dealt in on film.

Goddard did that brilliantly in his movie Le Mepris aka The Contempt with Brigitte Bardot ( as failed actress), Michel Picolli ( the struggling screenwriter) and Fritz Lang and Jack Palance in cameo roles of a director and producer:


Jean-Luc Godard Le Mépris (Contempt)


It was Goddard's very first movie with serious financial backing from a major film studio aimed at being more commercial. Goddard took the opportunity to turn the film into a totally different story and deliver one of the most fascinating visual essays about the history of Art. 

I think the film was actually a commercial flop when it was released and was largely misunderstood but is since considered a classic. 

Proving if needed that whether it is Goddard or Picasso or Kiarostami that despite their reputation of working in an unconventional "modern" style, they are fully capable of filming and directing in a totally classic style.

So their style is not dictated by a lack of technical ability or sophistication but rather a personal choice and well pre meditated intention. 

I think Truffaut best defined the assumed contradictions of Hitchcock's filmmaking artform by saying that he filmed love scenes as if they were murder and would film murder scenes as if they were scenes of lovemaking.


Although very different in style but in many way's I think that like for Hitchcock what appears as contradictions in Kiarostami's filmmaking are actually fully assumed and premeditated scenes with a multitude of layers of interpretation.

That's why each time I watch a Hitchcock film or a Goddard film a second or third time, I keep discovering something new which I had never noticed before. 

I get the same feeling with some of Kiarostami's films including this one.

Maybe that is what we call great filmmaking after all ? ...

Great Review as Usual. 


Recommended readings:



Rumi A Great Film Critic's Choice by DK



Carriere's Master Class In Tehran by DK