william steig drawing

December 5, 2011
Kartina Richardson

Certified Copy

*I am traveling right now, and am uneasy and anxious. Interestingly, in the past few days I’ve found myself yearning for the comfort of Juliette Binoche’s breasts in Certified Copy, and so I am reposting*

I watched Certified Copy on a plane. I watched it on my laptop sitting between an older man and an older woman, and so the three of us watched the film together. They in secret glances here and there, and I, aware of their curiosity, in varying states of self consciousness. This is the inevitable consequence of personal movie viewing in public spaces, but as we three watched, these lines appeared and to my horror, I began to cry.

“Look at your wife, who has made herself pretty for you.”

Bearing witness to a stranger’s unexpected emotional vulnerability results in an uncomfortable domino effect of exposure. And so, because my sniffles betrayed me, our whole row became connected in a strange and awkward way. Apart from violence, nothing changes the air more instantaneously than tears shed amongst strangers.

All is ripe for speculation.

And as I did small things to feign non-crying casualness, like coughing and rustling in my bag, I was reminded of a story. Many years ago a friend of my parents needed to phone them following an emotionally upsetting fight with her husband. This was in the age of pay phones and she could not call from home. Dreading being spotted sobbing in a phone booth, she decided to make the call the only place her tears would be perceived as appropriate: The hospital. This story was relayed to me and I have always regarded it as a brilliantly heroic manipulation of perception. This is the same subjectivity of reality that Certified Copy explores.

Juliette Binoche, beautifully soft and rounded, plays a nameless woman. Most ladies, myself included would be happy without this compliment, but Binoche’s face has magnificent texture. It cannot hide any emotion. The slightest upset or joy registers immediately in its tiny spaces (surely this is a better term than “wrinkles”).

Binoche is the (rather cruel) mother of a pre-teen boy, and fan of writer James Miller, played by the dashing William Shimel. James is in town to lecture on his new book of artistic theory “Certified Copy”, and the two spend the day together.

Now, much discussion around the film has been devoted to proving the nature of Binoche and James’ relationship (are they strangers or are they married). This defining is unnecessary however, for both scenarios exist simultaneously; we may choose the one we prefer.

When I watch the movie, I believe that the couple is in fact married, and so my ideas on the film are specific to that understanding, but no framework is “realer” than the other and neither affects the movie’s value. The film’s profundity lies not in the couple’s relationship or lack thereof, but in its ability to lead us to an examination of our own perceptions. What might our deductions, or the evidence we’ve gathered to support our points, reveal about our own desires? For example, what is the bride sitting here (in my favorite shot of the film) thinking? As James exits (he is seen in the doorway), she enters the frame. She breathes heavily but remains silent. Is she frightened? Perhaps about losing her virginity? Is she overcome with happiness, daunted by ceremony, annoyed with her husband, or simply out of breath? The movie gives no explanation.

Returning to the subtitles that ruined a flight:

In this brilliantly raw line is a blatant admittance of needing. Binoche cares deeply what James thinks. To admit that we need approval is a magnificently human display of vulnerability. In one fell swoop walls and walls of exhausting pretense tumble down.

As needing, the requiring of something from someone else, is the antithesis to his theory of no-obligation living, James reacts with hostility. Her desire to please burdens him with sudden responsibility.

This is all the result of one previous action: A hand placed upon a shoulder. An action made all the more aggravating as its enactment, and the resulting behavior of Binoche, exposes flaws in his philosophy.

Binoche, an antiques dealer, has built her life around an allegiance to a conventional perception of “right”. Some things are sacred, some things are not. There is only one reality. She is hostile to any deviance from these rules for if other people are allowed to stray, the life of the rule abider becomes ridiculous. Everybody knows we don’t let children stand in the rain. Everybody knows we get married, we have pretty weddings, we shave on our wedding day, we go to piano lessons on time, we do not drive around aimlessly, we do not stand in the middle of the street, we do not adore stutterers or costume jewelry, and we certainly do not live apart from our families.

James’ book is a reaction to this idea of living and perhaps even written as a shot to Binoche specifically.

James: I’m rather afraid that the alternative title to my book ‘Forget the Original Just Get a Good Copy’ is likely to offend the artistically sensitive… It’s my intention to try and show that the copy itself has worth in that it leads us to the original and in this way certifies its value. And I believe this approach is not only valid in art, I was particularly pleased when a reader told me that he found in my work an invitation to self inquiry to a better understanding of the self.

…this concern about origininality, the notion of the false and genuine has always existed and occupied our ancestors’ minds as much as it does ours today. The word “original” has itself for us very positive connotations: authentic, genuine, reliable, lasting, possessing an intrinsic value. The eytmology of the word too is interesting. The latin root “oriri” means arising or being born and I am particularly interested that the word “original” refers to birth. I would take the idea to its extreme and draw parallels between reproduction in art and reproduction in the human race… Examining original works is therefore a process of questioning origins. Of exploring the foundations of our civilizations…This fascination of one’s culture’s origins is inextricably linked to the fundamental definition of originality, and with originality comes a need for authenticity the need for cultural confirmation…

In stating that a copy’s worth is the same as an original’s, James equalizes art, and, because he applies his theories beyond art, all aspects of life. This is an artistic theory on the surface, but it is also an effective means of stripping people, events, or actions of significance. Though this leads to the appreciation of the overlooked, flawed, and under appreciated, like the beauty of Marie’s husband, for James the two other results of this stripping of significant are where he benefits the most. If we equalize all our relationships and all events in our lives, we 1) relieve ourselves of any special responsibility to these people and places, and 2) disallow them the ability to cause us any special pain. These are the reasons for the book’s creation.

James: “I had to write the book to convince myself.”

And yet he is still uncertain. Life interrupts his theory (as the cell phone repeatedly illustrates) and the day spent with Binoche causes James to waver in his conviction. The largest crack first appears as the two argue over the significance of the a statue.


Binoche: I like it

James: What do you like about it?

Binoche: I don’t see why I have to try and convince you.

James: I wonder how you can convince yourself. You’re a real art expert aren’t you?

Binoche: I don’t see it as a work of art I like its subject…I like the way she rests her head on his shoulder.

James: I can’t believe you’re so sentimental.

Binoche: I can’t believe you’re so irresponsible.

James: Irresponsible? Me? This guy has nothing to do but protect this woman!

Binoche: That’s why he was immortalized.

James: Immortalized? You cant be immortalized for that. It’s ridiculous.

Binoche: Nonsense.


Binoche: Sharing? Do you know what that means? What do you know about sharing?

Binoche’s interpretation of the statue, is in accordance with the rules of his book, but is also in opposition to the theory the book was written to prove legitimate: Man has no duty but to himself. The perception of others is of no importance.

James’ problem however, is that he only believes half way. He wants to live his life with the understanding that man has no obligation, that the perception of others does not matter, and yet he seeks approval. He wants to prove that he is not bad, irresponsible, or lacking in masculinity, and so he writes a book about it disguised as an artistic theory. So when Binoche expresses the opinion that the statue celebrates man’s responsibility, it sends James into a small fury. It is the irritable defensiveness specific to those caught red-handed in a mistake.

James: You’re right. I don’t share this opinion. All you see is a woman resting her head on the shoulder of that monster. Honestly I feel sorry for you.

Binoche: Sorry for me? It’s because he protects her that he’s become eternal. I know what I’m saying. You just don’t want to answer.

Binoche: Then your book is stupid too. I thought what mattered wasn’t the work but how we look at it. I thought your approach was subjective, personal, creative, inventive, but now what matters? The technical skill? The artist’s reputation? How we see it no longer matters? Answer!

James: I don’t want to. What you’re saying makes me hate everything: art, originals, copies, this statue, you, everything.

Binoche: I know you hate me, there’s nothing I can do about that. At least try to be a little consistent.

James: What do you mean?

Binoche: Want me to remind you of your book? Let’s go over to the statue, you tell me of its worth.

James: No, I’ve absolutely nothing to say about its worth. It was you who called it an eternal masterpiece.


The subsequent weakness induced by this kerfuffle allows for the “hand on shoulder” action. In moments of panic and uncertainty, we’re susceptible to emotions that although inconvenient or problematic, are still there. This is even truer if we believe in something unpopular. Suddenly unsure of our stance alone, we take shelter in the safety of tradition. In an agreed perception of the correct way of living. This may last for just a millisecond, but it’s a reminder of how strong our desire is for the approval of others. When James heeds the older gentleman’s advice to place his hand on Binoche’s shoulder, he is, yes, admitting to some degree of love for Binoche, but is also asking the man to approve. To perceive him as “good”.

Because James acted on the advice, the original idea of the older man, his action can be seen as a copy. The idea was not his original. Yet, if we are to abide by his theory, it means, the copy, the influenced action, is of no less value, no different than if it were his original intent. Binoche does not know any of this of course.

She joyfully regards James’ gesture as the real thing, and so bases her actions on the idea that the original intent is there. She draws the conclusion that he has he surrendered. This encourages Binoche to drop all pretense. She giddily rushes to the bathroom to beautify,

only to return to an embarrassed James annoyed not only with her eager entre into tradition (an irritation he disguises as a rant about the convention of ordering wine), but once again, the realization that his theory is flawed when applied to real life.

His action was a hollow gesture, a replication of another’s idea. And so, in his case, the copy is not of the same value as the original.

Or is it?

“A copy leads us to the original thereby certifying its value.”


Maybe James’ action is not actually hollow and has indeed revealed his existing tenderness. The irritation he now feels is due to the still problematic nature of his feelings, suddenly and annoyingly exposed.

Which explanation is it? I’m not entirely sure. I’m inclined to say it is both.

Either way, realizing the ways in which it can be used against him, we see James edging further away from his theory throughout the day, as Binoche, seeing how it can work for her, begins to see value in copies.

Perhaps a copy can be just as good, just as real as the original.

Like a new copy of an old relationship.

Binoche: “If we were a bit more tolerant of each other’s weaknesses we would be less alone. Don’t you think? I know one can live alone, but, did you see that couple next door? I envied them. That old couple. Didn’t you? No?

James: Not so sure.

Binoche: Stay with me. Stay. It’s better. Better for both of us. For you and for me. Give us that chance.

James: I told you. I must be at the station by nine.





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  1. Kartina you are BRILLIANT

  2. Holy snap. This was one of those rare essays that make one relive the greatness of a film. It’s a CC of CC, in other words, and it ended on a heart-stopping note– same as the original.

  3. I got stuck on the first paragraph of the essay trying to make sense of why:

    “Look at your wife, who has made yourself pretty for you.”

    would leave someone in tears. It doesn’t even make sense. It wasn’t until I saw the screen stills with the actual caption that I realized it was a typo. So, ok yes, I admit it’s tear-worthy.

  4. Throughout my reasonably long life I’ve often heard people say: “the things we criticize in others are the things we fear most about ourselves.” Or some variation thereof. The thought kept occurring to me as I read this piece, brilliant as usual, especially incisive, tender and particularly apt. We must remember that copies have their own ability to lead us to truth, if only we open our eyes and our minds.

    PS I’ve missed entirely too many of your posts since I’ve pulled back a bit from Twitter. So now I’m subscribing to your blog via rss. Just learned what that was. My grandchildren will be proud of their Grandpa Geek.

  5. Randy Masters

    Wow! Now that is an insightful movie review. You didn’t just watch a film. You took it into your soul, and then showed it back to us. Beautiful.

    I haven’t seen the film, but now look forward to doing so.

  6. Now I have greater understanding of the genesis of your argument this week supporting the value of documenting live performance, even if it alters the experience of those in attendance and was not requested or consented by the performer.

    I have 2 dear friends who are sisters. When one emerges in the morning the other will react to her outfit, that it reflects a particular mood that the one commenting disdains. Having no siblings i am often startled that one’s unconscious or mindless choices could be open to critique.

    I love the way that you examine the scrutiny of self and opinions held between two characters intimately involved, the license intimacy grants for critique, and how self knowledge may come most readily as a reflexive response to how others inaccurate perceptions of us spark fury and epiphany of articulation.

    Well done.

  7. An interesting read that has made me reevaluate my perhaps hasty judgement of the film. I feel that in a way the film is the next in a ‘Before Sunset’ line of films in that for me when I am of their age in ‘Certified Copy’ it may all make more sense…that it is to say sometimes as in reading when there are certain echoes of a character in your own life that you identify with the greater the affinity with the film.

  8. Such a brilliant review, Ms. Richardson. The way you narrated your experience with watching the film made me feel I was, actually, there. I also like the fact that you take us step by step until you, eventually, lead us to your conclusion.

    Whenever I read anything you wrote, Ms. Richardson, I remember this saying: “Beauty lies in simplicity”. You use a very simple style to discuss highly intricate issues. Very paradoxical, I would say.

  9. First thing I want to say about Certified Copy is I love the way this film was shot. I love the many copies of Binoche’s and James’ couple, and I love the fact that a lot of the actions of the main characters we can only see through reflexions of them; when the protective glass shows the feelings of the couple about a piece of art or when we see Binoche’s characters talking to tourists about the statue through the mirrors on a bike while James stays right by the bike. There’s is one scene at the beginning at the movies which I particulairly like: when the two are driving through the city, we see the reflections of the walls by the street. When the scene starts, both characters are inside those walls, separated by a clear blue sky. When one of them becomes a little open to the other, the wall makes way to the blue sky, and when that character stops, the wall comes back, separating them yet again.

    Now, Certified Copy is a very hard movie to understand because, since we establish that a copy can be as good as the original is the meaning stays the same, that means we never truly get the full picture unless we learned French, English and Italian; traductions are in fact copies of an original so more people can understand it, and so a lot of informations or true feelings can be lost in that translation. When I read the translated dialogue you’ve put in that article, those lines seemed… alien. This is a movie about perceptions and how we percieve those events, and whether we like it or not, our perceptions not only change based on our feelings, but also on our language.

  10. I never fully grasped what the film was trying to say the first time I saw it but after reading this I’m excited to revisit it.

    What do you think of Kiarostami’s other films? I just saw Taste of Cherry and was deeply moved by it.

    Jesue V

  11. James’ book is a reaction to this idea of living and perhaps even written as a shot to Binoche specifically.

    I found this idea especially interesting and intriguing.


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