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Cinema | 'Certified Copy': Talk, Reflect, Reflect, Talk


04 Apr 2011 15:42Comments
Abbas Kiarostami on men, women, and other big words.

[ cinema ] "There is nothing but reflection that I could intend to offer the viewer of the film." So says director Abbas Kiarostami about his latest work, Certified Copy, the first feature he has made outside of his Iranian homeland. Here, then, is one viewer's reflection.


There is a broad category of films that are much more interesting to discuss than they are to sit through. There's no accepted term for them, but they are mostly covered by two other, well-named categories with which they largely overlap: the bad good movies -- those films of admirable concept and unerringly competent execution that lack nothing but life -- and the critical darlings -- those films that enflame a professional ardor all out of proportion to their love among the people.

Certified Copy, which premiered at Cannes in May 2010 and is now having its commercial American release, is a rarity. Though it flirts shamelessly and repeatedly with inertia, it is too intriguing and slyly amusing to qualify as a bad good movie. As for critical darling status: while the reviews have been widely favorable, most are shy of passionate; on the other side of the balance, the movie teases with the kind of emotional engagement that's the freeway to popularity, then demands the viewer stop and pay toll after intellectual toll. Yet it stars Juliette Binoche, who proves that the power of her anxious charm is not only universal and ageless, but also defies the convincing portrayal of a character even more irritating than the ones that brought her fame.

In sum, Certified Copy occupies a sparsely populated realm in the taxonomy of cinematic appeal: too good to be bad (but not quite pleasurable enough to score as good), too ambivalent an amorous object to be an unambiguous critical darling, it is as pure an example as you will find of a movie that is more interesting to discuss than to sit through. Here, then, is one side of a conversation.


First, there's a man. Then, there's a woman. A child appears, but the father is an ever-unsolved mystery. If this sounds like the setup for a joke about Christian iconography -- yes, it is, for sure...but only if you believe a joke is not obliged to deliver a punchline. Indeed, one wry jest strings after another in the film, but you'll have to worry those beads yourself to arouse a laugh.

The man is James Miller, played with great grace and precision by operatic baritone William Shimell, in his first professional nonsinging role. Miller has written a book whose field could be called the philosophy of art. Its title is Certified Copy. An Englishman, Miller is in the Tuscan city of Arezzo to celebrate the publication of his work's Italian translation and to lecture on his Big Idea: "The copy has worth because it leads us to the original and thus certifies its worth."

The woman is unnamed. Of French origin, she has been living in Italy for five years and is fairly fluent in the tongue. She runs an antiques shop, though the one item she has anything to say about is a "copy." She is the single mother of a child, and is either divorced from or was never married to the father -- he seems to be long gone, in either case. Really, though, there's not much interesting about her other than that she's embodied by Juliet Binoche and might be, however functional, prone to going quite out of her mind.

The child is male, approximately 13 years old, and very annoying. He is left behind 15 minutes into the film and is unmissed. Not to imply that he is unimportant.

This is a movie well aware that you may want to grab it by the shoulders, give it a shake, and yell, "Why are you doing this?!" Its response is a coy shrug and a dare, "Come on, interpret me. Give it a shot." It proceeds to bob and weave, brushing aside every bid to paint it into a corner. Of anything in this film of feints, the boy is the easiest to interpret. An all-too-realistic video-game obsessive sporting ultrahip shag and brattiness to match, he incarnates two truths: the biological imperative behind the ruthlessly mental romantic exchanges around which the story revolves and the difficulty in making a reproduction of truly satisfying quality.

A couple of days after their first encounter in Arezzo (a meeting we don't see), Miller and the shop owner, who evidently has a major crush on the erudite author, take a day trip to the nearby town of Lucignano. Amid a bevy of newlyweds who flock to the picturesque setting to be married, they engage in a series of debates about authenticity, about subjectivity, about memory, about love. Their talk is eventually framed within a game, spontaneously conceived and never explicitly agreed upon, in which they pretend that their relationship has far more history than the few hours that seem to be the fact. There is only one clear rule to this game: it has to end, and soon. Miller is to depart Arezzo, and presumably Italy, at 9 p.m.

Yes, the games people play. Except the games real people (and somewhat realer people) play tend to be more subtle and compelling, and the stakes much higher. When, in another Italian-set narrative, Shakespeare suggests that the game of love is much ado about nothing, there is a lingering note of gravity, even horror: whether love is real or fabricated, an echo of someone else's claim, a copy, all that play has very serious consequences -- it used to be called wedlock, holy matrimony.

At the end of this game, however, no debts will come due, no promises will be kept or damnably disavowed. A hand upon a shoulder becomes the focus of things for a minute. A modest physical gesture like that can be very powerful on film -- but generally not when it's t-a-l-k-e-d about beforehand and when it doesn't echo or suggest more vital acts. Such concrete considerations may not be relevant to the mental workout for which the film provides a rarely matched opportunity, but they are pertinent to drama and its lasting satisfactions.


In A Lover's Discourse, the French philosopher Roland Barthes taxonomizes the universal "figures" -- waiting, anxiety, tenderness, truth, and so forth -- through which the amorous subject performs the arduous work of love. One of these figures has no simple English translation: the loquela, the flood of "language through which the subject tirelessly rehashes the effects of a wound or the consequences of an action: an emphatic form of the lover's discourse."

Barthes -- that is to say, the narrative voice adopted by Barthes -- acts out the loquela:

Trop penser me font amours -- love makes me think too much. At times, result of some infinitesimal stimulus, a fever of language overcomes me, a parade of reasons, interpretations, pronouncements. I am aware of a machine running all by itself, a hurdy-gurdy whose crank is turned by a staggering but anonymous bystander, and which is never silent. [...]

I cannot keep from thinking, from speaking; no director is there to interrupt the interior movie I keep making of myself, someone to shout Cut! Volubility is a kind of specifically human misery. [...]

I have two speakers in myself, busy raising the tone, from one utterance to the next, as in the old stichomythias: there is a bliss in doubled, in redoubled speech, taken to the final din....

The Certified Copy scene resounding with the deepest echoes conjures that old stichomythia, a device from the dramas of ancient Greece in which two characters speak -- argue, usually -- in brief, alternating lines.

Over a dinner table in a dimly lit and barren trattoria, set off by no more than the miscue of a faceless waiter, man and woman perform an impossibly archetypal quarrel between a couple whose love is doomed. It's a perfect storm of amorous figures on the rocks, of eternal and inevitable grievances, of timeworn plaints. Reduced to a flood of alternating hackneyed phrases, man and woman here are barely distinct, just two mirrored voices in a single fevered notion, amid whose torrents the only bliss lies in misery's dismal perfection. In this fatally flawless discourse, dull smashes against null to dazzling and mirthfully mournful effect. Base cliché reaches critical mass, transmutes into epiphany -- we are all in our solitude consigned to life's same dark theater, playacting with fellow shadows. Rich and strange, yes, but still just a philosophical game. Just words. The marquee outside promised a movie.


Or was it just a game? The more time that passes since viewing the film -- the greater the distance from that sometimes wearying physical experience -- the more satisfying it gets. That makes sense: a movie more interesting to discuss than to sit through is bound to be more pleasurable to reflect on than to see. In a recent interview from his Tehran home, Kiarostami affirmed what he said he has said many times before: that he doesn't mind if people sleep during his films if they dream about them later. While this one may induce slumber, its potency is too studied, its intercourses too verbal to rouse anything so sensuous as dreaming. His maiden tale abroad makes you think too much.

Kiarostami speaks: "The only thing that I can do is hold a mirror in front of men and women, in front of the viewer in the theater, to reflect." If you're lucky enough to have a companion with whom to watch the film, you may find yourself turning to him or her at the end and asking, "Is that all there is?" No, by no means. Certified Copy is the perfect date movie if your desire is to talk all night.

Dan Geist is a critic and senior editor at Tehran Bureau.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

related reading | Cinema: Certified Copy | Watching Kiarostami Films at Home

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