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Cinema: Certified Copy


18 Jun 2010 23:56Comments


Abbas Kiarostami's latest movie, Copie Conforme (Certified Copy), featuring French actress Juliette Binoche and British opera singer William Shimell, is the director's first feature film to be shot in Western Europe. The French-Italian-Iranian production also represents the first time he has made a film in a foreign language -- or three: French, English, and Italian.

Kiarostami first met Binoche in 1996. When they reencountered each other years later in Paris, she expressed her desire to work with him. He accepted the challenge and Certified Copy is the result. Kiarostami's script was inspired by an experience that they shared: He told her about his past, she asked him if everything he said was "true," and he said no, nothing of the personal part of the story was. A surprised Binoche laughed and suggested that such a "real-false" tale was a perfect subject for a film. Shimell was cast after Kiarostami met him in 2007 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival where he was appearing in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. According to the director, Shimell's unfamiliarity as a screen presence -- this is his first movie role -- was part of what made him an ideal choice.

What is most striking about the film is the variety of ways it can be interpreted. Some viewers accept the interaction between the two central characters as authentic; others read it as an unusual game. If there is any point of general agreement it is that the story is ambiguous, even confusing. What is it all about? Certified Copy deals with the notions of the authentic and the copied in both art and life. How are the limits of reality defined? Where is the borderline between appearance and imagination? Kiarostami plays with the concept of these uncertain boundaries. And he makes us believe that nothing in life is definitively real or false.

Binoche -- who received the best actress award at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival for her performance in the film -- plays a French gallerist living in Florence with her young son. Nothing is revealed about her husband except that he is not involved with the family and lives elsewhere. Binoche's character, whose name is never heard, meets James (Shimell), an elegant British academic who just has published an essay about the concepts of the original and the copy in Italian Renaissance art. He visits her at her gallery and asks her to spend his last day in Italy with him. She decides to take him to the little village of Lucignano. As they drive, they discuss weighty philosophical matters. James believes that all we can know of reality derives from individual perception and that beauty can be found nowhere else than in our own hearts. In other words, he assumes that the opposition between an ideal and its reality, between an original model and its copy, is false.

This crucial conversation is the point at which the film turns to its primary subject: love and romantic relationships. Kiarostami is interested in the ideal -- the pattern or model -- according to which each person builds his or her love story. Lucignano itself, famous for bringing luck to newlyweds, offers such an ideal, that of everlasting love. It is also where the gallerist's wedding took place 15 years before, and we slowly realize that her disappointment stems from her belief in the romantic ideal embodied by the village and its legendary golden tree.

The two drink coffee, and the cafe owner takes them for husband and wife, prompting a game. They both start to act as if the cafe owner's perception is indeed reality, as if they themselves have been married for 15 years. (And maybe what she saw is real?) Their performance is so swiftly convincing that viewers are led to modify their own perceptions and accept the reality of the game that is played. It is this reversal of perception, this game of mirrors into mirrors, that structures the story.

But do the two really know each other? Have they ever met before? As they walk in the village, the nature of their "relationship" is revealed. She is a deeply unhappy wife who seeks security for herself and her son. James, assuming the part of the husband, expresses his devotion to hard work and vocational accomplishment. He doesn't understand how much his wife needs to be desired and ignores her attempt to seduce him. The wife remembers their passionate honeymoon and constantly reminds him of the exquisite time they had so long ago in the small village. She tries to draw him into her idealistic vision of their past. However, the husband recalls none of the details she attempts to evoke. This husband and wife -- whether their status is real or pretend -- enact clashing perceptions of romance and time. She is nostalgic about a passionate love that he has forgotten. She is focused on the past; he, on the present and the future. She believes in eternal love and is the prisoner of her memories. He believes in ever changing cycles of love and life and accepts the passage of time.

Dealing with the eternal questions of love, the film confronts us with what it proposes are fundamentally different male and female visions of it. How can love last in a long relationship? And how can a couple understand one another over the passage of time? Kiarostami references the modern Iranian poet Akhavan Sales, who says that a less passionate, more authentic love can be discovered once the spring and summer of life have passed. The rare beauty of this "winter" love, without fruits and flowers, can be experienced only through a calming of the soul and the renunciation of desire. James asks, "The bare garden -- who dares deny its beauty?"

I was surprised by Certified Copy's black-and-white vision of love. Kiarostami offers a naive vision of the love relationship as a universal pattern and largely ignores the complexity of relationships, whether real or fantasized, in postmodernity. We live in a multimodal world that features a vast variety of family arrangements, both traditional and unorthodox -- masculine women dating feminine men, unmarried couples with children, married couples with no children, married gay couples with children, unmarried gay couples... Although the film has a philosophic and poetic undertone that give it an intriguing strangeness, the picture it draws of sex and gender is ultimately simplistic and extremely normative: Women are insecure and nostalgic. Men are pragmatic and ambitious.

The film is filled with long conversations in which the characters discusses the past that they have (purportedly) shared, and quarrel over their future expectations of each other. Shot in alternating, fixed close-ups, these dialogues convey each character's loneliness and lack of understanding. In this regard, they are each other's mirrors. Locked in their inner worlds, they are unable to move beyond their very different ideals of love. Though interesting on the formal level, these long dialogues grow increasingly tiresome. It seems that the filmmaker has no definite vision of love himself and is searching for one by delving into the hearts and minds of his lost characters.

The film's conversational style has little room for the meditative and meaningful silences that distinguish Kiarostami's previous work. And this is not the only significant difference. Like Ten (2002), for instance, Certified Copy deals explicitly with human nature. But rather than a game of illusion and reality, Ten offered a realistic vision of Iranian society.

Of course, a comparison of Kiarostami's films is not the crucial point here. He is a great artist who looks for a personal language each time he makes a picture. But he seems to have lost himself a bit in here, adopting a new, international formalism. By erasing all boundaries between reality and its projection and by jailing his characters in such sharply articulated and limited roles -- a conventional couple with all its clichés -- he offers us a paradoxical work in which a basic, endlessly provocative subject is lost in a complex and inadequate narrative structure. What can viewers find in a film that weds abstract concepts of falsehood and reality to an oversimplified vision of love and relationships? Nothing else than a certified confusion.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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