​​“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence – and nothing else – that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject … the here and now of the original underlies the concept of its authenticity…” 1

The first of many reproductions in Copie Conforme (Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami, 2010) comes barely five minutes into its runtime. The film opens with the camera fixed on an empty table and two microphones; the speaker is running late. “He can’t blame the traffic, his room is upstairs,” his introducer jokes in Italian. Eventually, a round of applause bursts out and we see who this audience has been patiently awaiting: British writer James Miller (played by opera singer William Shimell). He makes his way to the front of the crowd, apologising for being late. “I would blame the traffic, but I walked here,” he says in English. And we are away. There will be many more repetitions, echoes and allusions in this film: copies of books, artworks and sculptures, copies of dialogue via translation and paraphrasing, and, in a confounding twist, copies of prior emotions in a relationship.

To consider the artistic value of originals and their copies is to emphasise context. The object might be identical, or nearly identical, but the perceptual scaffolding we erect around it creates something new. An object loses its unique tissue of space and time through reproduction, and it loses what Walter Benjamin calls its “aura”. 2 But context can give things an aura too. Marcel Duchamp puts a urinal in a gallery, and it becomes art. Or as Miller later tells Juliette Binoche’s unnamed character, “you take an ordinary object, you put it in a museum, and you change the way people look at it.” Glancing out the car window as they drive together, he latches onto the example of nearby Cypress trees. “Originality, beauty, age, functionality – the definition of a work of art really. Except they’re not in a gallery. They’re out in the fields so nobody takes enough notice of them.”

Up until this point the conversation between the two has been filmed by a camera on the front of the car, capturing not just the two figures but the reflections of the street they’re driving through. This is a trademark stylistic technique of director Abbas Kiarostami, which critic Roger Ebert suggests is a way of implying an off-screen world taking place around Kiarostami’s characters. 3 Here, Miller makes his point and then Kiarostami enacts it, cutting away from the car for the first landscape shot of the film, forcing his audience to appreciate the Cypress trees the way Miller has nudged Binoche’s character to. The filmmaking itself, in other words, embodies the film’s ideas. This is also true of Juliette Binoche’s performance. In much the same way as her collaborations with director Claire Denis, Binoche is adept at embodying her director’s complex thematic concerns, regardless of what’s happening in the filmmaking around her. It’s not quite right to say the finely calibrated emotions of her performance are the ‘truth’ of this increasingly opaque film. But they reveal the emotional – and very real – implications of Kiarostami’s art theory escapades.

It’s all there in the film’s opening scene. Despite a simple setup – a fixed camera, a crowd watching a man present a lecture – the opening scene demonstrates Kiarostami’s ability to use cinema’s unique properties as a temporal and visual medium. As Miller speaks, he starts to offer some ideas about originality and reproduction in art. The camera perspective flips and as he keeps talking, we see Binoche’s character arrive late, with her uninterested teenage son. She grabs a seat in the front row. There are two things happening simultaneously: an outline of the film’s key themes (via Miller’s lecture) and the start of its narrative (via Binoche’s character’s entrance). We are invited to connect the two when Miller says that his ideas on originality and copies go beyond the realm of art theory alone, and that “a reader found in my work an invitation to self-enquiry. A better understanding of oneself.”

This is what nudges Certified Copy away from a simple parlour game of cinematic repetitions. The film explores authenticity and reproduction in art and applies this to human relationships. “Kiarostami has organised a highly unusual set of terms for exploring the process of being within a long-term marriage,” critic Michael Sicinski writes in his lucid analysis of the film:

It is understood intellectually, and to some extent viscerally, that time will change us, and that we cannot and should not remain the same people through the course of a marriage…how do we distinguish between what we can reasonably expect to remain constant, on the one hand, and what represents an irrational, nostalgic longing for the ‘original’ … on the other? 4

Certified Copy is open enough in its text for multiple interpretations of its central relationship, meaning that it, too, is an endlessly reproduceable copy. Again, context is key. “Nothing’s changed here,” Binoche’s character laments towards the end of the film, slumped on the steps up to the small motel where she and Miller spent their wedding night 15 years before. He earnestly replies that she has changed, Shimell’s performance shifting to a much gentler register than the irritation he has generally been presenting throughout the film. Because she has changed, her original experience has inevitably been lost forever, so that even though all the buildings and cobblestone streets are identical, this experience of the town is now a copy.

The same is true of their relationship. Witness the film’s standout scene: Binoche, facing the camera directly, applying lipstick and replacing her earrings. She returns to Miller but he ignores her changed appearance, instead complaining at length about the wine. “Look at your wife, who’s made herself pretty for you,” she insists. He irritably replies: “This is just not the moment. It’s five o’clock, I’m hungry, I need a drink.”

Her gesture, in the face of Miller’s demeaning disposition, could be seen as a pitiable act of pure desperation, an attempt to reproduce a spark that died years ago. It could be seen as a false facsimile, lacking the ‘here and now’ marking the original’s authenticity, to use Walter Benjamin’s phrasing. But Kiarostami’s film suggests a much more sympathetic interpretation is warranted. So many of us desperately attempt to recreate the past, knowing on some level that we are doomed to fail. But this doesn’t make these copies worthless. As Miller says in the film’s opening lecture: the value of a copy is that it always leads us to the original. In doing so, it certifies its value.


  1. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 21.
  2. ibid, 23.
  3. Roger Ebert, “It’s the real thing. Or Whatever,” RogerEbert.com, 16 March, 2011, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/certified-copy-2011.
  4. Michael Sicinski, “Love Streams: Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Certified Copy’,” Mubi Notebook, 10 March, 2011, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/love-streams-abbas-kiarostamis-certified-copy.

About The Author

Anders Furze is a Melbourne-based journalist and editor.

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