Certified Copy: Ambiguous authenticities moving in time and space

In Abbas Kiarostami’s 2010 film Certified Copy, British author James Miller (played by William Shimell) wrote a book of the same title (i.e. Certified Copy) which has echoes of Walter Benjamin’s landmark essay on mechanical reproduction. In Miller’s words, his intention is “to try and show that the copy itself has worth in that leads us to the original and, in this way, certifies its value. [T]his approach is not only valid in art. [It is] an invitation to self-inquiry, to a better understanding of the self” (CC 6:30-50).

There are implied references to the concepts of reproduction and aura in Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction within Miller’s conversations with an unnamed antiques dealer (played by Juliette Binoche). In one scene, She took Miller to an art museum which housed a special portrait of a woman. It was only discovered 50 years ago that the painting was created by a skilled forger. Miller remarked that there is no difference whether the work was a copy or not saying, “The original is only a reproduction of the beauty of the girl in the picture. She’s the real original” (CC 40:47-52). In some sense, he was challenging the concept of Benjamin’s aura, arguing that the actual basis of the painting (e.g., the girl) has the aura and neither the copy nor the original has it.

During their car ride en route to the museum, a conversation about artworks featuring Coca-Cola sprouted after Miller delivered his favorite joke with the beverage as the punch line. She said that it reminded her of Jasper Johns’ Coca-Cola, to which he countered with Andy Warhol’s. Though the characters did not delve into the artists’ styles, cloned figures are distinct in Warhol’s pop art, which harkens back to reproduction in art.

Beyond discussions surrounding reproductions in art, the core of the film is their relationship, where its true nature was not directly clarified. As the film progressed, there are shifting perspectives on what is being looked at and who is doing the looking, complicating the morphing relationship between Miller and She. Bray and Calatayud reiterate this sentiment:

Viewers are going to be kept wondering whether the two protagonists are in the process of starting a relationship, of breaking up, or of restoring their commitment to one another. (91)

At the start of the film, She attended Miller’s book event at Tuscany with her son Julien, sat at the front-row seat, and gave her number to Miller’s translator. Outside the venue, Julien teased his mother on her infatuation, “I know you like this James and want to fall in love with him” (CC 13:29-31). However, She denied it and said that she only wanted to connect with him because she was interested to know more about his book. Miller accepted her invitation to meet so he went to her antique store, briefly chatted with her before they decided on a car ride to an Italian village outside town. There was an air of unfamiliarity on what appeared to be their first interaction.

As the day went on, a sense of familiarity slowly unraveled. Their interactions were almost always quarrels; she was militant on a lot of things while Miller coolly reacted to her most of the time. For two strangers who just met, their dynamic was unnatural to watch – it was as if the patient Miller was already accustomed to her astringent personality. Apparently, that day was them celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary and they have been spending time with each other to repair cracks within their marriage. They went to a restaurant for an attempt at reconciliation, which again turned into a feud. Miller ended it by asking for forgiveness with contempt, “I apologize for last night. I apologize for five years ago. I apologize for the restaurant, for the waiter, for the wine. I apologize for the last 15 years, and I apologize for my existence! (CC 1:26:51-27:10)”

The mystery of their relationship can be linked to their interactions with three couples in the film: a newly-wed who asked them to join them in their photo at the golden tree (a belief at the fictional Italian town to bring luck to one’s marriage), a middle-aged couple who offered their interpretation of the statue on the plaza fountain when She was insisting Miller that hers was correct, and an old man and woman who wordlessly exited the church that they went to. It can be interpreted that Miller and She were trying to copy these couples. To extend this, it could also be that they are/were/will be these couples and they were just looking back at the past or towards the future, which paints the film a surreal tint. The ongoing question is that: which façade is real, and which is not?

If there is one general point that Benjamin wants to deliver in The Work of Art, it is to recognize how current media challenge our existing perceptions in art and artmaking. When he wrote this in 1930s, the burgeoning media at that time were photography and cinema. The quote at the beginning of the essay from Paul Valéry establishes this point, specifically:

We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art. (1)

Now, there are more innovative artistic channels that have already propped up decades after Benjamin published his essay, thanks to the exponential increase in technological innovations. However, there is still a potential in cinema that can tackle and reinvent enduring art theories such as the concept of aura and reproduction in The Work of Art. In Certified Copy, it is not the medium (i.e., film) that challenges Benjamin’s points but the multiplicities of the characters themselves, generating a new layer to the discourse.

Prior to Certified Copy, Iranian filmmaker Kiarostami has already been known to push the boundaries of cinema in his works. Two of his well-known films, Close-Up (1990) and Taste of Cherry (1997), are also great examples on how he weaved the internal exposition with – and not just using – cinematic elements. McMurray pointed that audience perception to his works is also a key, that “in many of his films, we as audience are meant to take the active role, creating meaning for ourselves rather than expecting the film to convey it for us” (12).

Given the ambiguity of Certified Copy, it would be prudent to hear what the filmmaker thought about it, which he shared in an interview with Cutler:

A copy is not the same thing as an original. It doesn’t have the same value. But this is not to say that we estimate the copy as valueless. What I am trying to say is that it is not without any value. The value of copies is that they can direct us towards the original. I was recently at the Louvre Museum and I was filming people who were viewing the Mona Lisa. I noticed the number of ordinary people astonished, mouths agape, standing still for long stretches looking at the work, and I wondered, “Where does this come from? Are these people all art connoisseurs?” They are like me; through the years, we’ve seen this work in our schoolbooks or art history books, but when we stand before the original, we hold our breath. With regards to the film there’s a double meaning, which is, if you do find a good copy, grab it and stick with it and don’t go after the original because you won’t find it. Hence we must also think about our own possibilities. Of course, it is an ideal to have an original, but as the bartender in the film says, “L’ideale non existe.” [Cineaste: The ideal doesn’t exist. The original doesn’t exist.] (13)

Going back to the grounding text, Benjamin asserted that “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” (2). What reinforces this quality is the aura, which is an “element in its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place” (3). In his other essay Little History of Photography, he described it as a “strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance of distance, no matter how close the object may be” (qtd. in Conty 5). The aura surrounding the artwork is lost in copies as the history in its materiality is something that cannot be conceivably transferred. On the other hand, being free from the aura brings forth new copies each with unique existence, with new histories and stories to start with. Copies also go to places where the original cannot go.

In essence, there is a unique spatio-temporal quality that inhabits auratic objects. What is removed from the copy is “here and now.” If we were to take Miller and She’s existence as real in the here and now throughout the film’s runtime, what does that implicate? According to Mathew, Kiarostami has a “maddeningly” straightforward answer: the film presented two periods in their relationship – the beginning when they first met, and their reunion on their 15th year (13). This corroborates Andrew Benjamin’s case on aura where he suggested that something can exist “in a ‘here and now’ but always has the potential to exist beyond the restriction of any instant” (34).

What made Kiarostami’s idea imperceptible on first watch is the smooth linearity of the events in the film which made it appear that everything happened in one day. However, there is an element that can contribute to the opposing notions: the wardrobe. It was only at the start of the film during the book conference where the characters were seen to be wearing a different clothing. After the event, when Miller went to She’s antique shop, both of them were now sporting a different look that stayed constant until the end of the film. Nonetheless, at that time they were acting (or role-playing) that they did not know each other, so the new wardrobe seen at the antique shop still did not fully support the claim that they were already married for 15 years.

There is a background piece that film reviewers usually attribute to the authentic vibe to the made-up Italian town that Miller and She went to: the sporadic bell tolling. More than enveloping an Italian air to the setting, it could also be hinting at the changing of their relationship. Bell pealing alludes to the passing of time and, in this film, possibly of space as well. Bells were heard when She and her son exited the seminar, when Miller and She entered the Italian village, after the couple took a photo with the newly-weds, throughout the church scene with the old couple, and at the end of the movie when Miller must decide whether he has to stay at the hotel with She or leave the city. If the tolls indeed signify that there is only one thread connecting the plurality of the characters’ spatio-temporal presence, then it certifies that their relationship – both as strangers at first then a married couple – was real.

While their stories do not match up sometimes, it can be chalked up to memories being unreliable. McMurray quoted Shields on her interpretation of their inconsistent recollections:

To fill in the holes, we turn our memories into specific images, which our minds understand as representing a specific experience, object, or thought. Our past experiences have been dismantled, analyzed, re-collated, and then made ready for imagistic recall. The images we store in our memories are not exact replicas of what we experienced; they’re what our minds turn them into. They are what we need to re-create the story, which is the full experience the image represents. (3)

As there is no one clear answer as to what the nature of their relationship is, it could also be that Miller and She were just strangers throughout the movie, copying how a married couple should act, playing along, and reacting on the spot based from the information that the other has shared about their actual partner. Dalla Gassa points out that the “copy/couple without original becomes the bearer of its own time-limited originality, reason and result of a comparison that has yet to be put in place and then eventually solved through a more or less authenticating act” (18). That act is, whether Miller has to stay at the hotel with She, his mistress, or catch the 9 pm train implying the return to his actual wife.

All things considered, dissecting their relationship is like tracing a provenance of a work of art, following the journey of where it came from and how it came to be in its present condition. Kiarostami disclosed something about reaching the end of the story of Certified Copy: “Our art consists in lying in such a way as the spectators will believe it. What is vital is that the viewers know that we are showing a series of lies to reach a bigger truth. The lies are not real but in a way they lead to the truth” (qtd. in Bray and Calatayud 9). Miller is a mouthpiece of this declaration when he said at the start of the film how the copy eventually brings us to the original, thereby certifying the copy’s value.

This goes back to temporality, not only of the aura’s but also of the copy’s. Conty re-interprets this concept from Benjamin, claiming that “only by returning to the past and disordering it, raising the oppressed back to the surface, allowing memory to reclaim what it was not allowed to experience, can the future remain open. Paradoxically then, Benjamin redeems the future by returning to the past, as if the already and the not yet could alone heal the trauma of the present” (11). She related that with the medium of photography and “especially” film, which are “means of accessing a past lost from view, erased from normative history and the conscious mind, a past captured in an image that brings the present into focus” (9). Certified Copy is Kiarostami’s canvas and within it are reproductions of characters navigating through time in a non-linear fashion, and in due course leading us to the end, the truth, the original.

Aura is not only essentialized by time, but also by space. Benjamin writes in another essay On some Motifs in Baudelaire that being able to discern the aura means giving it the ability to look back in return (6), dressing it with materiality that can occupy space.

In relation to such, gaze is also an important motif in the film that can be connected to experiencing Benjamin’s aura. Kiarostami also acknowledged this in his interview with Cutler where he said, “[E]verything goes back to our gaze. Everything goes back to you and to the way you look” (4). Miller, again being the director’s surrogate, remarked something along those lines at the time when he and She were trying to understand why her sister Marie was enamored of her “simple” husband. Miller opined that “the way Marie looks at her husband changes his value” (CC 31:17-20).

In the film, there are multiple scenes featuring mirrors and mirrored objects, both with and without the actual glass. When Miller went to the antique store, there was a shot where he was in-between two similar angel sculptures, one presumably real and the other fake. At the beginning of their car ride, their conversations were visually overlapped with the reflections on the windshield, registering the city and the nature outside. While they were bickering about the meaning of the fountain statue, Miller stood beside a full-length mirror and a motorcycle, reflecting She as she approached strangers to find who agrees with her interpretation. The pattern of seeing copies of themselves and their environment adds a dimension to the argument of the characters being a copy of something else.

There are two more acts featuring mirrors, in Dalla Gassa’s terms “no mirror ‘in action’”, that are distinct in a way that “there is but it is not seen; we see no refractive surface, we see no reflected images, and we do not perceive any shifting of light” (12). Who is looking and what are they looking at? In two separate scenes, She and Miller looked directly at the camera, putting the audience at the position of their mirror image.

She’s mirror scene was at the restaurant during their efforts at reconciliation. She excused herself and went to the washroom to apply a bright red lipstick and chose eye-catching earrings. In a latter scene, She confronted Miller, asked him if he noticed that she made herself beautiful for him, but doubted his response when he said yes. On the other hand, Miller’s mirror scene was at the hotel at the end of the movie, the turning point of what comes next for their relationship. After She plead him to stay, he excused himself and went to the washroom, fixed his hair, and left the room. The audience was left with no answers, and was left looking at the city through an open window, hearing the bell tolling at the distance.

These moments of breaking the fourth wall through mirrors “necessitates a confrontation with one’s own face as the window to one’s own interior self” (qtd. in Dalla Gassa 5). This blurring of line between fiction and reality implicates the audience in the story and the persisting inquiry of who is real and who is the copy as Kiarostami breaks the “seemingly safe boundary between those being watched (the fictional characters) and those doing the watching (us)” (McMurray 4). Perhaps the indirect answer to the question is what Miller has already said at the start of the film – the copy being “an invitation to a better understanding of the self,” an assertion that mirrors the function of the aura that “elicit[s] the experience of self as other, presenting us with the gaze of our own forgotten selves” (Conty 11).

This was written for Readings in Aesthetics and Art Theory (Art Stud 245) course in UP Diliman, 1st Semester AY 21-22.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Andrew. “The Decline of Art: Benjamin’s Aura.” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 30–35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1360414.

Benjamin, Walter, Hannah Arendt, and Harry Zohn. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Bray, M., and Agnes Calatayud. “The Truth about Lies: The Relationship between Fiction and Reality in Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Certified Copy.’” New Readings, vol. 11, Cardiff School of European Languages, Translation and Politics, 2011. eprints.bbk.ac.uk, http://ojs.cf.ac.uk/index.php/newreadings/article/view/39.

Certified Copy. Directed by Abbas Kiarostami, performances by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, MK2 Diffusion, 2010.

Conty, Arianne. “THEY HAVE EYES THAT THEY MIGHT NOT SEE: WALTER BENJAMIN’S AURA AND THE OPTICAL UNCONSCIOUS.” Literature and Theology, vol. 27, no. 4, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 472–86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23926992.

Cutler, Aaron, and Abbas Kiarostami. “Certifying the Copy: An Interview with Abbas Kiarostami.” Cinéaste, vol. 36, no. 2, Cineaste Publishers, Inc, 2011, pp. 12–15, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41690997.

Dalla Gassa, Marco. “The Thin Line between Original and Original.” Eurasiatica, vol. 5, Aug. 2016, p. 20. Zotero, https://doi.org/10.14277/978-88-6969-100-3/014.

Mathew, Shaj. “Ekphrastic Temporality.” New Literary History, vol. 52, no. 2, JHU, pp. 239–60.

McMurray, Anna Maria. “Down the Rabbit Hole of Reality: Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy.” CINEJ Cinema Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 1, Aug. 2011, pp. 4–15. cinej.pitt.edu, https://doi.org/10.5195/cinej.2011.8.

Shields, David. “Memory.” Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, no. 46, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, 2009, pp. 32–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41807718.