What is the value of a copy? It’s a question that has been plaguing film ever since people began to think these motion pictures might have artistic worth. For some, the immediate reproducibility of film makes it an illegitimate, or at least lesser, art form. But for others, there is great value in the copy, perhaps even as much as the original.
James Miller (William Shimell) is such a man. He’s written a book called Certified Copy which holds the value of a copy is that it draws us to the original. But one reader, Elle (Juliette Binoche), isn’t convinced his book is as grand and wonderful as some make it out. Over the course of the day, the two argue about art, life and everything in-between.
Famous Iranian screenwriter/director Abbas Kiarostami weaves a masterful, flowing series of conversations that seeks to legitimize the art form in which they exist. Beyond that, his approach also echoes of his film Close-Up, a reenactment of a real event by the real people who lived through it. And more immediate than that, these conversations begin to fold back in on the fabric of the films and the characters.
Elle argues that while his ideas sound well-meaning, James has no conception of the realities of life, that choices have consequences and that his ideas are too postmodern when put up against the everyday life which Elle must live. While these conversations begin about art, they inevitably begin to circle around life because for Abbas Kiarostami, the two are intimately tied together.
James holds that the great pursuit of life is pleasure and enjoyment. He sees this in art, and he thinks the copy when enjoyed in such a way has this value and worth. But what is a copy? It’s a question that comes up when Elle shows off a piece of artwork that has been proven as a counterfeit but is still displayed in a museum and seen by many. Furthermore, it’s even show off as a counterfeit.
Is the value of art in its originality? If so, why then is the counterfeit still displayed proudly? Is it the quality of the craftsmanship? James comes to a breaking point in his own views when Elle shows him a statue he sees as trite and misguidedly sentimental. She has ascribed her own personal feelings about it that James vehemently disagrees with. Does that delegitimize Elle’s personal value in the art?
In an era where the label of art is becoming more and more broad, and hence less and less meaningful, such questions become essential. For there to be art, there must be that which is not art. For some, a copy could never be art, but in a world where copies have been certified, where are the bounds, what are the implications and how does that impact our understanding?
Beyond that, what is the validity of life itself? Elle’s own life seems to copy patterns of stories and antidotes that James peppers throughout their day together. Are our own lives just copies of those who came before us, a never ending cycle of history? Or are we certifiably us? Like Elle and James at the statue, I imagine film buffs will come to different conclusions and possibly even bicker among themselves as to the answers, but the important thing is that Abbas Kiarostami is asking all the right questions.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing