Based on the analyses I heard when this film was released 3 years ago, I knew about the enigma surrounding the couple’s relationship going in, but I wish I hadn’t. I’m reasonably (90-95%) sure of what they are to one another, but if I hadn’t known that anyone else had serious questions, maybe my own residual doubts would have been totally eliminated. Maybe the truth would have hit me with a force that could not be denied, giving needed definition to character conduct and motivations, which are now hazy, yet still tantalizing to contemplate.
I’ll draw the puzzle’s outline and then try to lay the pieces in: Elle attends a lecture given by James Miller, an author’s whose book, Certified Copy, intrigued her. James arrives late for his speech, even though he is staying in the hotel where it is being held. Elle arrives still later. Though engrossed, she cannot stay because she’s nagged by her restless, hungry son Julian to leave. She leaves a note and arranges for James to meet her later at her antique shop. He does and they take a drive. While in a café, the restaurant owner assumes that Elle and James are married and Elle does not correct her. She tells James that she’s let the woman think they are husband and wife and he doesn’t seem to mind playing along. However, when they leave the café they seemingly continue to interact as a married couple. Why? There are three possible answers:
1. They really are married and have only pretended to be strangers as some kind of lovers’ experiment.
2. They are not married, but are not strangers either. Perhaps, they have had an affair in the past. Indeed, James might even be the father of Elle’s son.
3. They are strangers who embarked on a game that became all too real.
My take is that #1 is impossible and that the truth lies somewhere between #2 and #3, perhaps a combination of both. At the very least, James and Elle both became aware of each other 5 years earlier in Florence. Whether they connected then or earlier or not until now is open to dispute. For Elle, the question may be academic because the pain of rejection is the same, either way. She was married 15 years ago and has felt increasingly abandoned since, whether James is her husband or a certified copy is immaterial to her feelings. In that sense, we are reminded that a copy may not only replace the original, but can reproduce or double its emotional impact, leaving us with a rather poignant Multiplicity lesson.
James’ lecture starts without him. Most of the attendants are present, although a few seats marked “reserved” are still empty in the front row. The announcer tap dances a bit nervously, mentioning that James is in the hotel, so his tardiness cannot be blamed on traffic. When James arrives, he says the same thing and has no excuse for why he is late. He thanks everyone for being there, noting that he himself would rather be outside.
He’s English and is pleased that his book has received such a good reception in Italy. It’s only fitting because he got the idea for it in Florence, 5 years ago. He mentions in slow (but I don’t think sloppy) Italian that the translator for the Italian version deserves credit for the book’s success there. He says that the subtitle for his book is “Forget the original, just get a good copy,” but the editors were hesitant about that one. People want to believe in the original, as something that is authentic, verified and reliable. Still, he believes that a copy itself has worth, because it leads you to the original and satisfies its value.
Elle comes in around then and takes her seat in the front row next to the man James identified as the translator. She sits in one of the reserved chairs. It is easily to believe she is affiliated with the speaker, based on her positioning. Then, her son enters and prods her, threatening to distract the speaker with his interruption. Elle waves him away to a corner of the room, not to one of the empty "reserved" seats up front, the way she would have done were he the speaker's son. The boy retreats, but continues to be obtrusive, restless, shifting as he stands against the wall, video game in hand. Elle motions for him to crouch down and be still, but motioning his stomach, he relentlessly indicates wants to leave.
She whispers to the man next to her, writes him a note. QUESTION: since she came in a little later, how does she know that this man is connected to James and can get the note to him? Why does she assume the man is with James? The audience knows this, but she presumably wouldn’t, unless she had done her research about James and/or had had prior contact with his announcer/agent.
She lingers at the doorway as James takes a phone call on his mobile. He jokes he missed the admonition to turn off all cell phones. The audience listening in, he tells the caller he will have to talk to them later, he’s in the middle of something. Elle joins in the crowd’s merriment, before reluctantly stepping away.
As she reaches the lobby, her son pulls at her hand to hasten her. She frees herself from his grasp. She stops to buy several Certified Copy books at the register.
She puts them in her car and asks if Julian wants to leave his book bag there too. He does not and she, a bit exasperated, warns him that it is going to get heavy for him. He never heeds her advice. She heads down the street and he trails behind, playing his video game. The fact that he won’t keep up with her is somewhat annoying to me, especially since he impatiently hurried her out of the lecture. Now, he’s taking his time. Of course, I didn’t know that that would be one of the themes in the movie.
She is walking so far ahead that I wonder if he will lose sight of where she’s gone once she turns the corner. He does not. He sees her enter a restaurant. Is it because they’ve gone to this one before and it’s where he expected her to be or is it because he kept an eye on her, even though he seemed to be lazily involved in his video game?
He sits down while she is still at the counter. When she joins him he grills her about what she’s ordered. Did she get the cheeseburger with double cheese? Yes, she did, even though she knows he won’t eat it. And did she order a coke? Yes. She knew what he would want beforehand. She anticipated and filled his order, even the part he'd ask for but won’t consume, will let go to waste.
Based on his nagging, I wonder why she just didn’t give him money and let him go get the food himself. He’s 12 or 13, old enough to go down the street alone. In fact, since she entered the lecture solo and had not reserved a seat for him, I assume she intended for him to wait outside while she listened to James. So, she’s not afraid of being parted from him. Why not give him cash and separate from him or, now that she’s there to pay, why not let him order himself, just to ward off his pesky questions and complaints about what she bought? We soon see that he likes to chide and it irritates her no end, so she should just reduce his opportunity to annoy as much as possible. As they sit facing each other, she tells him he needs to get a haircut. It’s more a complaint than an order. As his mother, couldn’t she force him to get one, I wonder? Refuse to fund his meals and video games if he refuses. She could control & stop some of the things he does that madden, rather than simply respond when irked.
He asks her why she purchased so many copies of a book she doesn’t even like. She denies disliking it. He says she already has the book. But not signed copies, she counters. She’s going to have James autograph them. She says something about the writing annoyed her, but that doesn’t mean she dislikes it. He aks who the copies are for? Marie, Alain . . . he remarks that she hates Alain. So what, she retorts: she’s giving a book she dislikes to someone she dislikes! Oh, so she is admitting that she dislikes it. I suppose I'm taunting her in my head just as much as Julian does.
He needles further. Why did she give the note to his friend (so Julian knows that that man was connected to James as well)? Was she asking James to meet her somewhere to sign the books? That’s why she bought so many copies, to have an excuse to meet him later. No, she couldn’t stay and have James sign them because he, Julian, was insisting that he was hungry and playing his video game, causing a distraction. Julian says she wants to meet with Julian and fall in love with him. That’s why she wrote the note. Interesting, because Julian’s wording indicates not that his mother is attracted to James but that she wants to be. That she wants to make herself feel something that is not yet in bloom. That she’s preparing to manipulate her own feelings. If he thinks that, why would he? Is it something she’s been prone to do before? Does she create a fantasy and then climb into them? Has she done this with men before James?
Elle discards Julian’s cheeky conjecture. She says she wrote the note to meet with James, but not for the reason he thinks. He laughs, getting a kick from unnerving her. He promises he has one more question. When she wrote his name [where did she write it? In the guest book?], why did she just say Julian? “I have a surname,” he teases. “That is too much!” she exclaims angrily, runs from the café, stands outside fuming as he continues sitting at the table, chuckling at her discomfiture.
Of course, he’s such an irritating child that one wants to shake him. On the other hand, she is so easily rattled that you can’t blame him for pushing her buttons for entertainment, any mischievous teen would be so tempted. Moreover, his probing observations are right on target, showing that even though he seems like a disinterested youth on the surface, he watches his mother’s every move and analyzes the meaning behind each one quite cannily, with a perception belying his age and languorous manner.
QUESTION: Why didn’t she leave Julian’s surname? I initially thought it was because, as Julian claimed, she was romantically interested in James and thought him knowing that Julian was her son would be a turn off, especially since he’d presented as rude kid in the lecture hall. In fact, since Julian did not call her “mom” I was unsure at that point whether or not he was her son. If she had wanted to pass him off as a nephew or godson to James, that would have been understandable and I might have believed her. But later, we see that she has no qualms about letting James know she has an obnoxious child. So, that’s not why she concealed the surname. Did she do it because the child bears James’ surname? Did she not want James to know that Julian’s is his from a past fling or that she has passed him off as James’ by putting “Miller” on his birth certificate? Hard to say, but I think Julian would have used the fact that he and the author upon whom his mother was, in his view, crushing shared a last name as an arrow in his arsenal of elder abuse. So, the fact that he didn’t makes me think his and James’ last names are different. Of course, we never learn Julian or Elle’s last name. Since James is clearly a stranger to Julian, if not Elle, option #1, that James and Elle are a role-playing couple, is ruled out in my mind. I don’t think James could even be someone that Elle has been secretly dating recently, because Julian would have had suspicions of the affair and spoken of them, as nosy and precocious as he is.
My tentative conclusion is that Elle was working on the fantasy that she and James were intimates long before the lecture began and she omitted Julian’s surname because it would be a concrete reminder that James was not the boy’s father. At the very least, Julian’s theories suggest that Elle is not currently married. If she was with Julian’s father, would he assume she wanted to fall in love with someone else? If he did, if he thought his mother wanted to have an affair, I can’t imagine it would be a source of such hilarity for him. Of course, I don’t think he’s as carefree about the notion as his laugh suggests, either. As insightful as the boy is, I don’t think he interrupted his mother and pulled her out of the lecture simply because he was hungry. She had a plan and he wanted to thwart it.
We next see her antique shop. James has to descend stairs to enter. It’s below ground, rather bleak. She enters from another room. The shop is usually closed on Sunday, but she has apparently been there, just in case he came. When she left the note for him, she says she didn’t give him a time to come, that way he could arrive whenever he wanted. And, presumably, she was going to remain there the whole day, on the off chance that he’d show. They don’t introduce themselves to each other. Either there’s because they're already acquainted or because the note said it all, explained who she was and why she wanted to meet him. But it’s not clear to the audience.
She says she has pieces at the shop that she thought he might like to see. She can help him shop, find what he wants (but what does he want? Why does she think he wants anything?) He looks around and says it seems they have interests in common. She says no. She just possesses these things as a business. Buys and sales them. She doesn’t collect like he does. He says that antiques don’t really mean a lot to him. He is not a collector. In fact, if something doesn’t fit in with his design, he’ll get rid of it, no matter what it’s value. He said that what he really wants is to get outside. Which is the same thing he said in the lecture. Being inside, closed in, tied down doesn’t suit him, I’m gathering. Strike one. I think this is his first rejection (the first onscreen one at least). She planned to intrigue him with her antiques, to help fulfill his need to acquire. Present her offerings and have him appreciate them. He doesn’t. She calculated wrong. What she thought would interest him doesn’t. Yet, he doesn’t refuse her company. She should take pleasure in that, but she seems mildly irritated with him anyway, even minutes after they’ve, apparently, just met.
She says she has a car and they can go anywhere he wants. He has no plan or destination in mind, just as long as they are back by 9:00 p.m., because that’s when he has to be at the station. She must live above her shop because, as they depart, a woman calls down and asks if she is leaving. She shouts up that she is and doesn’t know when she will be back, but make sure that Julian gets to his private lesson on time. Thus, she doesn’t try to hide Julian’s existence from James.
They climb into the small car and seem cramped for space, narrowly avoiding each other’s arms. He gingerly picks up her high-heeled shoes from the floor of the passenger side and puts them in the back seat. It’s an intimate gesture, bringing him into contact with a feminine part of her wardrobe – those were not business or walking shoes. He seems amused. A husband would not be. A husband would just toss them over his shoulder, without a thought. He would have seen countless pairs like them, along with nylons on the shower curtain. A husband wouldn’t notice.
As they drive along, she asks him to sign the books she’s purchased and begins to discuss the subject matter. Her sister Marie thinks the original is just as good as a copy. She loves costume jewelry. It means as much to her as real gems. The real ones are no more valuable in her eyes. This annoys Elle. Marie is obviously a thorn in her side. She says that Marie’s husband stutters. He says, “M-m-m-marie.” But Marie loves it. Thinks it is beautiful. Maries says she should spell her name like that on her birth certificate, because that’s who she really is. Obviously Elle sees this as a defect in Marie, that she could love, nay even marry, a man that stutters her name. James has a different take. Value is a matter of perception. If you perceive something as an original, then it is. He takes up the book that was dedicated to Marie again. Does Elle mind? No, of course not. He adds more to his inscription. Elle wants it read to her. She demands he do it with such urgency that it’s clear she did mind him writing more. Her need to know what else he’s said is burning. I think she’s going to swerve off the road in agitation.
He says that he’s told Marie that an original and copy are equal in value. Elle is almost angry. Now, she will never be able to reason with Marie after he’s written that! Oh well, she can always give Marie one of the other five books, if she doesn’t want Marie to have that message, James reasons. He says Marie’s view is a very simple one. He only wishes he was simple-minded enough to believe her, that the copy and the original were equals. He wants to, but can’t. I initially think Elle is insulted because he’s, basically, called her sister simple-minded, but that’s not the cause of her objection.
James suggests they just drive and enjoy the scenery, but he wants to say one more thing. Oh, he wants to have the last word, Elle deduces (sounding very much like a long-suffering spouse). No, he didn’t mean it that way. He wasn’t suggesting she should shut up, only that . . . What’s the difference between the Mona Lisa and a copy, if you value the copy as much as the original? Besides, was the original original? First of all, if Leonardo da Vinci had the woman pose in that manner, if he manufactured her smile, by directing it, was it original? Secondly, since he was just painting a replica of the woman herself, then his painting itself was a copy!
Then, is nothing an original in his mind, Elle waspishly asks? Yes, Marie’s husband is an original he says softly. This answer is not comforting to Elle. I suppose the husband is the original because Marie perceives him that way. She’s happy with him even though she could have had better. But what about the way he changed her? Remade the pronunciation of her name, caused it to mean more, even to Marie. Wouldn’t that make Marie the original, I wonder? She’s created anew in his loving eyes.
As for the Marie v. Elle dichotomy, I don’t understand it. Marie thinks a copy is as good as an original, but Elle (though she does not say it) thinks that a copy can be made into the original. What is the difference to her? Marie will take a copy off the rack. Elle will take a copy, she'll just cultivate and manufacture a pedigree for it first. She obviously thinks Marie is settling for something inferior and disapproves, but how would Elle not be settling if she took a replacement in the stead of the true, authentic thing? Perhaps, she thinks that if you create the replacement to be the original that’s better than just accepting a retail store replica. If the copy originates with you, if you designed it custom made, rather than just accepting any substitute that happens along, maybe she thinks that makes all the difference.
She and James were supposed to be driving in silence but a woman gets in Elle’s way and she yells at the traffic stall. It’s almost a way to release the tension between them, to yell at a third party who can’t hear her. I don’t know that the venting helps James, though, it just may increase his perception of her as unreasonably wound up and resentful. We don’t really see the woman who blocked Elle’s way. Generally in the movie, we see other couples who parallel Elle and James, I’m surprised the roadblock is not some alternate version of them as well. Maybe it represents Elle blocking her own way.
They arrive at a museum she wanted to show him. She parks and explains it’s crowded on Sundays. It’s where people come. He seems to think she brought him because it’s a tourist trap, but she says she has something specific to show him. He sees married couples and wonders if she got married there – aha, how does he know that she is married? And why does he think she would take him to the place where she was wed? Before she can respond, her phone rings. It’s her sister. Julian is arguing about going to his private lesson. Elle pleads with Marie to talk to him herself. Julian wants to go somewhere before his lesson, not realizing that even the travel time to his preferred destination will make him late. It will take an hour to get to the other place. Julian has no sense of time, Elle complains to James.
Elle hurries James through the museum, wanting him to see a special piece. A tour guide is explaining it and she wants James to listen. It’s a painting. It was long thought to be the original, revered as such, but just recently the original was found and this was unveiled as a fake. It turns out that someone had the copy made and then buried it, so it could be found there in that region and lend the location, the place where the “original” was found, prestige. Even after the excellent forgery was identified as such, people still come to see it. Still honor it as great art. James has little reaction to the guide’s words or Elle’s attempt to translate them. He backs away from the painting and looks at other artifacts. Elle’s own animation fades away. Strike Two. She says that she thought that the story of the copy would enthrall him, as an example of the point of his book. He says that there are too many examples. They aren’t unique any longer. But, she presses, at least he could have said that this one was special, that he wished he had known about it before he finished his book. Ok, he wishes he had seen it before finishing his book, if it pleases her to hear that. In truth, there are so many instances of copies replacing originals that he wishes he’d known about that he’d never have finished his book if he heeded them all. At this point, he’s weary of the copy examples and ready to move on to another book. She’s disheartened as they leave.
They enter a café. She wanted to ask him something, but cannot remember what it was. He makes fun of her English, what did she "wanted" to ask him? From her manner, I would not know that she was pretending to have trouble remembering, pretending to be casual, except for the fact that he deliberately flusters her. Smiles, as she blushes. She calls him out for teasing her. Ah! She remembers, now. She asks him about the mother and son who gave him the idea to write the book, when he was in Florence five years ago. What did they do that influenced him. It is obvious then that she is talking about herself. So, she and Julian were in Florence five years ago? James saw her there. This is the first time the audience is given a past connection between them. At this point, I don’t know if James always knew she was the woman he saw in Florence or if her embarrassed manner suddenly began to make it clear to him, jogged his memory for the first time. He has never treated her exactly like a stranger. Yet, he’s not been familiar with her either. But they seem to be starting a game he enjoys. Yes, what does she want to know about the woman in Florence or is she asking about the book. What’s her question?
He makes Elle more direct than she wants to be, pretending not to understand her. She has to specify that she wants to know about the woman and boy. She references them, unconvincingly, as if they have no connection to her. He speaks slowly, drawing the story out, heightening her anxiousness. He saw them from his hotel room, walking below every day. The boy must have been about 9 then. The strange thing was that they never walked together. The boy always walked behind. He never tried to keep up with the mother and the mother never waited for him, she would just look back to make sure he was still there occasionally. Near the last day he spent there, he saw them sitting at a fountain. The boy was looking up at a large statue amazed asthe mother told him about it. James could not hear her, but he could tell by the boy’s awed manner that the mother was not telling him that the statue was a copy. That the original was in a museum, not in a public fountain. She led him believe the copy was real.
Elle begins to tear up and James falters. He’s not teasing anymore. He apologizes. He didn’t mean to . . . . “No,” Elle says. It’s just that she wasn’t well then. His phone rings and interrupts them. He takes the call outside. Her words have confirmed that she was the one in Florence with her son. But what does she mean that she was unwell? Was she sick? Recently widowed, maybe? Divorced? Recovering from mental illness, perhaps? We don’t know, but what is important is even then she was letting the copy stand in the place of the original for her son. She created delusion to feed his illusion that the statue was real. She helped his wonder survive by pretending.
As she sits alone at the table, Elle is approached by the waitress who says she can tell that her husband is a good man. How so? Because he’s here with his wife on a Sunday, talking to her as if he’s still interested in what she has to say. Elle says he’s not a good husband. That he’s always away, leaving her to raise their son on her own. He is wrapped up in himself. Even on their wedding day, her uncle wondered why he did not bother to shave and her husband said it’s because he only shaves every other day and his wedding day didn’t fall on the day for shaving. Like Julian’s uncut hair, her husband’s unshaven state is an affront, because it proves that she is secondary to his lifestyle, which will continue as it is, whether or not she is in it. She is not a priority. There commitment is not important enough to make him change his course. She can only be in his life if she accommodates and modes her own desires around the path he is already on. He won’t diverge for her.
The waitress is unmoved by her complaints and still considers him a good husband, simply because he is there. Elle wants to know if women should consider themselves lucky to have a man, even if he doesn’t pay attention to them? The waitress seems to think that man’s mere presence is sufficient and that women shouldn’t ask for more. Are they from around here? Elle tells the waitress that she was in Florence five years ago and then she moved here. QUESTION: Did Elle, a french woman, move to the Tuscany area and open an antique shop precisely because she observed James in Florence, became enamored of him and wanted to start a business that would bring her to his attention somewhere down the line? Did she first began investigating his identity, profession and writings back then and try to make herself into someone who could someday attract him?
Elle is french and they are in Italy, so the waitress wonders why Elle and James speak English to each other. Elle says because James is English. But why doesn’t he speak the same language as his wife and son? She moves to the table to pour Elle’s coffee and her broad back blocks the camera. It’s all we can see. We don’t hear them, but they seem to be talking to each other. Maybe Elle is whispering to the waitress or maybe the waitress is imparting a secret to her. We are not told. But as the waitress pulls away she says, “we won’t tell them,” gesturing to the male diners sitting around them.
James re-enters the café and the waitress asks him about his English. Elle tells him that the waitress mistook them for husband and wife and she didn’t correct her. James doesn’t seem to mind this, perhaps even likes the charade. He asks Elle what she wants him to say to the waitress. She tells him it’s not what she wants him to say. The woman asked a question of him and he should answer. In essence, she’s saying to him that she doesn’t want them to be in a pretense together. She doesn't want to dictate his part in it. She wants him to answer as a husband.
He says that he speaks English and his wife and son do what they want to do. As they leave, Elle is infuriated with this response. At first, I think she is criticizing him for not answering the way a real husband would, but then it’s clear that her critique is being made “in character.” She is a wife, upset that her husband thinks she and their son should live lives separate from his. It’s of no concern to him that they have their own language, that they haven’t had breakfast together in ages, that he doesn’t help with the parenting, that he’s always away on business, that they live in a world that he is not part of, in which he does not want to participate.
Actually, the question of language is a worthy provocation. It's not clear how much italian or french James speaks and understands or what prompts them to switch from one language to another, during discourse. It't not as if words become too complex for him and he changes to English because he's more at ease. He may not always respond, but he doesn't noticeably fumble in comprehending. Is it a power struggle? When they speak in English, is it her bending his will to his and vice versa, when they talk in France? When they avoid italian, are they blocking out third parties? Is it a battle between her French longing, his English immutability and an Italian conversion when they talk to others to integrate with the Tuscan world around them? Their language choices are as much a mystery as their relationship.
The phone rings and she carries on the ruse. It’s her son who says he can’t find something. She tells him where to look, specifies the place he will find it in her office and yells that if it is there and he has not tried to find it, she will kill him. She even extends the phone to James and asks if he wants to try talking to their incorrigible offspring. She is ready to bring Julian into this game. James does not reach for the phone, but he’s not alarmed by the gesture either. He seems willing enough to continue the play, but overwhelmed by it. It’s easy for her to make him the absent parent he says. The comment can have two meanings. Is he, as a husband, saying that it’s easy to blame him for things that aren’t entirely his fault or is he, as an actor, saying that she has unfairly asked him to play the role of bad guy, making it hard for him to respond. She reacts as if the former is true and wonders when is the last time the three of them even had breakfast together.
Julian is just like him, she rages “and both of you are killing me.” At this point, acting or not, we see that she has spoken the truth and is near tears. Julian is tearing her apart by failing to be what she wants in a son, just as his father has failed to be the husband she needed. They make demands and she fulfills them, without getting back anything in return. She’s both pushed away and put upon. Rejected and pulled at. She walks ahead of him on their unspecified path, just as she walked ahead of Julian at the film’s beginning.
Does James keep playing along because with each line of dialogue he’s getting more insight into the shell of her real marriage. Does he offer himself willingly because this game is cathartic for her and he wants to assuage her pain, even if he didn’t cause it? I thought so at one point, but then he’s so often cold that his goal couldn’t possibly be to help her work through real issues. His bouts of aloofness seem to spring from genuine ire. As when he yells that she's making him hate her. In that instant, he does. We know the part he’s playing, but not why. He may be her fake husband, but she’s telling us about her real problems. Conversely, we don’t know enough about James’ life to determine how this marital production is benefitting him. What real life strife is he expressing? Many of his outbursts seem staged and unnatural, as if he’s writing the script, as he speaks. He lacks her spontaneity. So I don’t imagine that he has a partner at home just as maddening as Elle. The phone calls he took at the lecture and café? Was that his love interest? He didn’t seem agitated with her, as Elle is in all her phone calls. Elle sparks him to act out a struggle that he’s already battling elsewhere, but which part is counterfeit? He was late for his own lecture, kept others waiting with impunity. He freely admitted he’d rather be elsewhere. He may have the same problem making a commitment as Elle’s real husband does/did, but it doesn’t seem to be plaguing him with guilt or a need to justify his choices. He plays along with her, but out of what need?
They come upon a building where people are being married (again?) and having their photographs taken. Elle goes in while James sits outside. Again, they don’t arrange their movements. They don’t say, “wait here” or “I want to rest.” Rather like Julian and Elle, they move autonomously of each other. Elle walking ahead, not together. However, this is not necessarily a sign of distance between two people. If you can move apart, but not fear losing each other, not assume you’ve been deserted, not need to look back to assure yourself the other is there, that bespeaks a trust and closeness that bridges relationship voids, rather than comprises them. Clearly, Elle does not agree. She wouldn’t appreciate a Kim Casali comic declaring: “Love is . . . taking each other for granted.”
Elle runs outside to James and begs him to come in to take a picture with a young couple. She’s told them that they were married in that same place 15 years ago today. James declines. Don’t embarrass me. I’ve already promised them, Elle implores, then demands. He’s insistent. He won’t go in. The groom comes out and asks him to pose with them, it would mean so much. James won’t. Finally, the bride entreats him and he softens. I don’t understand this. James’ demeanor does not suggest he has had a happy marriage, even if it has lasted 15 years, so why does this young bride and groom think posing with him will bring them good luck? Why make someone a member of your wedding party against their will? How can that turn out well? For Elle too, James’ reluctance should dampen any symbolic satisfaction she will get from their posing as a couple, celebrating their 15th anniversary. The more he refuses, the less real their game or the more real her true marital collapse. I also don’t know why James is so adamant. I don’t think it’s because they’ve taken the pretense too far. The young couple’s joy depresses him. He doesn’t want to feed their delusion, not the delusion that he’s been married for 15 years, but that it will end happily.
They leave and Elle is somber, disappointed. They pass a statue in a fountain, reminiscent of the fountain he saw her near in Florence. He's dismissive of the structure. It’s not true art he says, but it invokes the same feeling, so it is genuine, no matter it’s origin, she argues. She’s moved by it because of the way the woman rests her head on the man’s shoulder. She admires the reliance she has in his support. Her perception of the statue, doesn’t that make it an original, according to James' rules? No, it's just a romantic notion of hers. He is unswayed, unimpressed. She says she will asks passersby their impressions. Their views will make it art. She goes and talks to a couple. He looks on, uninterested, uncomfortable. He does not head towards them until Elle gestures. She has to push the couple in James’ direction, the older man is on a cane, but if she does not initiate their meeting, it won't happen. James only grudgingly approaches to meet them halfway. The couple have visited this spot many times and are impressed by the statue. Elle wants the woman to tell James why she likes it. She mentions artistic strengths in the sculpture that mean little to Elle. She impatiently tells the woman to repeat what she said earlier. Why does the way the woman’s head resting on the man’s shoulder evoke such a strong response in her? The woman answers that Elle is the one who brought that point up and all the woman did was agree with her that it is inspiring. But still Elle says, no matter who said it first, still the couple's stance is very moving. The couple agrees.
Elle does not seem ashamed that she has been exposed. She was basically feeding the couple lines, to make her point with James. But it doesn’t strike her that her argument is less convincing as a result. The husband says he didn’t get James’ last name. Elle says the last name does not matter, just “James” is fine and James agrees. As with Julian, she doesn’t want to give James’ surname? Why not? To best preserve the fantasy?
The husband pulls James away from the women and says that he doesn’t know what is going on between James and Elle and doesn’t want to know, but he sees how James can make it right. He senses their tension, but not the pretension. He thinks they are really a warring married couple and he has advice for James. He only has to put his hand on Elle’s shoulder. She wants it very much, even if the man does not know why. He assures James that will make everything all right between them.
James tells Elle they have to leave. He is as terse as a real husband would be. As they walk away he puts his hand on her shoulder. It is unclear whether or not the gesture is, indeed, comforting to Elle. At any rate, he tried. He wanted to make her feel better. Wanted to make things right.
At some point, he tells her she reminds him of her son. From where does he remember Julian? When he saw them in Florence? Or at his lecture, for the two minutes the boy was in his presence before pulling Elle out? Either way, if Julian made that much of an impression on him that he remembers the child’s expression and see it in Elle’s face, then somewhere inside he’s as fascinated with her as she with him.
They head towards a restaurant. He snaps at the waiter for a menu, a wine list. The waiter will not be hurried. Elle wants to relax, to enjoy being together. She excuses herself, goes into the restroom puts on earrings (which happen to be in her purse) and lipstick. Returns to the table where James is complaining about the inferior wine. She says, his complaints are baseless. It’s not as good as what she has in France, but is certainly better than English wine. She says that he fell asleep on the eve of their anniversary and it proves that he no longer cares. Her disappointment circles the table. He has gotten nowhere with the waiter and is perturbed. He uses his contrived displeasure with the restaurant to keep a wall between them, but I’m not sure why. I’d say it’s because he was uncomfortable with their game and the real nerves it hits, but when he excuses himself and returns, he is playing with renewed energy and she is acting as if nothing had happened.
She was near tears before, but those evaporated completely and she asks him if he feels better rather cheerily. He says he does and wonders if she remembers when she was commuting from Florence? Yes, she does, the long drive . . . one time he recalls her describing when she was driving their son home and suddenly arms grabbed her from the back seat. There was no one in the car with them. She had actually nodded off and was simply startled back awake. Does she remember? She tries to follow along with his scenario. It’s like they’re doing improv now. She’s not sure where he’s leading with this new line of dialogue. He asks her if she fell asleep at the wheel and endangered their family because she no longer loved him or their son? No, of course not! She fell asleep because she was tired. Exactly. He rests his case. And when he fell asleep on their anniversary, it’s because he was tired too, not because he didn’t love her. You’d think this, essentially a revelation of continued affection, would bring them closer, but she is looking past him. The couple from the church is outside now, at their reception. Small world. Elle is watching their celebration. James wonders if he is blocking her view. He wouldn’t want to keep her from the happy couple. For the first time, he is the one who seems jealous, neglected. Though, I’m not sure if his sarcasm is mocking, spousal role playing, or if he actually feels ignored.
At any rate, they are not destined to share a romantic meal. Fed up with the bad service, James leaves the restaurant and Elle stays behind long enough to motion frantically at the newlywed couple, through the restaurant window. They want her to come outside and join their party. She signs them she has to leave, but congratulations. They don’t hear her. They keep demanding that she come out. I don’t know why she doesn’t go outside to audibly bid them goodbye, since she’s headed out there anyway. Perhaps, it’s just meant to show the division between them and her, an impenetrable glass wall. Maybe she was never who they are, not even 15 years ago, as a new bride.
She and James are walking outside again. There’s an old couple, walking very slowly. The woman bent over, shuffling. The older man guiding her. Elle is touched by the sight. James doesn’t voice his reaction. Depressed? Does the old man have a partner to navigate with through life or a burden to drag along for eternity? Is the idea of being yoked to someone for 40 more years a sad or inspiring one? Whichever, on their journey together, they have now encountered three couples, young, middle-aged and elderly. All reflections.
Elle ducks into a church, without explanation. James waits outside, but then peeks in and finds her kneeling at a pew. He steps out and waits by the door, respecting her privacy. When she emerges they go and sit on the porch. He wants to know why she went in there to pray? She needed to be alone. Before we assume it's because she was overcome, she says she went in to take off her bra. But he saw her kneeling. She removes her bra as proof of why she went in. But why? Why go in the church to do that? She says she felt oppressed. She couldn’t breathe. He says he is sorry. Why? Because she couldn’t breathe, felt weighed down by their drama, her life? Or because he thought she was praying when she wasn’t. But she was. We saw her. Is she covering up, afraid that he might guess what she prayed for? Yet, she doesn’t really hide her other feelings from him, why conceal a prayer?
She says he didn’t notice, but she took off her lipstick and earrings too. He says he did notice. No, she won't be humored. He didn’t see when they went on and didn’t notice when she took them off. He did. He is the husband wanting to assure his wife that he has not stopped caring. He is kinder to her than he has been earlier, more sensitive. Is it because he’s falling himself or is his sense of pity increasing? Does he want her or want not to hurt her, further?
She changes the subject. They were married in the church and honeymooned right around here. Does he remember where? He points out a hotel. No, that’s not the one. His memory is bad he says. He can’t remember which hotel. He will. She heads up the very steps they are sitting on, which lead to a small inn. Again, James’ ignorance of the location is not feigned. He is humoring her, but these memories are hers alone. Option #1 is not viable. He is not her husband. Never was.
She is, as always, ahead of him. She tells the hotel clerk she and her husband honeymooned there 15 years ago and if #9 is vacant, can she have the key? She gets it and runs upstairs. James enters long behind her. The clerk tells him it’s room #9 on the third floor. Why does he assume James won’t remember what room he honeymooned in 15 years ago or what floor it was on? Elle told the clerk and, without James asking, the clerk felt the need to tell James. Is it that most husbands forget? Do only the wives remember?
James ascends the stairs. Slowly. Nothing seems familiar to him and it could also be that he’s in no hurry to get there. Elle is laying on the bed. She has thrown her sweater over a bannister. He moves it. Position it on the prongs of a chair back. Is she too careless for him? Too unrestrained?
She asks if he remembers the view from the window. No. Well look outside, to the left, does that refresh his recollection? No. Well, come to the bed. He can see it from there. He moves to her side. She’s not trying to seduce him. She’s just a wife of many moons who has been displeased all day, but is now pushing the resentment aside and remembering what made her fall in love in the first place. He smelled so good. She can remember his scent vividly. The pillow still smells of him, she says. A pillow that probably wasn’t even there 15 years ago. Has she gone mad? Does James question her sanity or merely rue the depths of her loss?
He gently says she’s more beautiful now than she was then. She caresses his face and finds it’s rough. He hasn’t shaved. “Yes, I only shave every other day.” She laughs. She knows. It’s not a gripe, but an endearment. A fond habit of his, something that ties him to her heart. He reminds her that they must leave, because he has to be back at the station by 9:00 p.m. “J-J-J-James,” she says, making him and what he stands for unique, her own or making herself an original in his eyes, like Marie’s husband is. He moves away. Strike three.
Elle, not stirring, agrees they have to leave. Of course they do. He told her that from the beginning. She stays on the bed. He leaves and enters the bathroom. Stares there. We just see his upper body and he looks into the camera or a bathroom mirror. Is that guilt or regret he sees? Is there a difference? He seems stunned, tired. It’s not initially clear whether he was standing at a urinal or washing his hands at the sink to me. But the water goes on in such a long and steady stream that I have to conclude he was washing his hands. We can see through the window behind his head. Light is fading. There are church bells pealing, rocking back and forth in chime. That must have been what Elle wanted him to remember when she bade him look out. Are they the wedding bells that rang when they married or just the ones that serenaded them on their honeymoon in that room 15 years ago?
The screen fades to black and my take away is that James wanted to give in, to become her husband, the original. It would be so easy to continue to play the game, until it was real. But, as he said of Marie, he’s just not that simple-minded. Even when he wants to believe, when it would be easier to become, he can’t ultimately proceed as if there’s no difference between an original and a certified copy.
Elle, thought you could make your own original. Design and create it. Bury it. Plan it’s discovery. Unearth it as genuine. Give birth to a new original, which will be just as valued as the first, but in the end, she miscalculated James’ interest in her experiment, just as she had at the museum. He wanted to play along, to be what she wanted, who she wanted. But couldn’t. I'm not sure why she needed a copy and yearned to recreate a bad marriage, rather than start a fresh pairing. Meet cute. Why couldn't James, the writer, encounter Elle a divorced reader and have hijinx ensue from there? My only guess as to why this much simpler meeting doesn't happen is that either she is slightly deranged and lives in a fantasy world more complex than it needs to be or she was never married and wants to pass James off to her family and son as the father, fifteen years after the fact. A court registrar will tell you that if the original is missing, a certified copy can be used in its place and stead. Maybe Elle needs a copy, because she got knocked up by a bum she never saw again. There is no original, so she needs to find a stranger around whom she can create a past, a certified copy with the bona fides of the original, but imaginary, man of her dreams.
For whatever reason, though they were together in France, instead of just wooing him then, Elle was plotting for them to come together since Florence, five years earlier. But I’m not sure what James’ role in the plan was. He never reacted to her with surprise and sometimes there was enthusiasm. It wasn’t as though she did anything unexpected or even unwelcome, from his reactions. Part of me thinks they could even have been lovers in Florence or even before. At a very minimum, he must have suspected that she knew he was watching her and her son from his window, as they walked the piazza back then. When he wrote the book and returned to Italy, could it have been without any thought that he would see the woman who inspired it again? What was in the note she wrote for him at the lecture? What were in the words she exchanged with the waitress at the café? Small mysteries. The big question, whether or not they pretended to be strangers, seems to have a clear answer: they were never strangers. Whether they were ever more is inconsequential, since the fallout from their inevitable breakup is very real, even if the relationship wasn’t.