Written and Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: William Shimell, Juliette Binoche
Somehow Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy had developed a certain mystery for me, or at least as much of one as is possible in this age of video clips, Wikipedia and internet journalism. This is film that I’ve heard so much about from critics I admire and it’s success at Cannes, and it is the sort of film that fans of art cinema have been speaking of with a certain amount of reverie. Of course I’ve been unable to see it, in part because my local theatre would never be caught showing such a film, but furthered by the film’s seemingly belated theatrical run, its limited DVD release (or are we still waiting on that?) and the fact that it has even been relatively difficult to procure through less-than-legitimate sources online. I’m sure that elsewhere, Certified Copy hasn’t been so shrouded and inaccessible, but I have had unusual difficulty getting my hands on it, which has resulted in an uncommon amount of anticipation and curiosity. I am glad to have finally seen it, as I have found it to be just the sort of film that reminds me what I love so much about the movies. It is full of philosophical musings, it is artful in its construction and it is playful in spirit.
James (William Shimell) is a British writer, in Italy to give a talk to introduce the new Italian translation of his book “Certified Copy” in which he posits a theory that a convincing copy of an artwork is a valuable as the original because a) if one does not know a copy is a copy, it shows just as much artistry and stirs the same emotional response that the original would and b) the original is just a copy of a real world object or a pastiche of objects seen or remembered. In the audience is a woman (Juliette Binoche) who leaves early to feed her bored and disruptive teenaged son, and who leaves the address of her antique shop for James. When he visits her the next day (later the same day?) The two spend the day driving to the countryside and talking. The two begin by having a conversation about James’ work that is oddly unrestrained for two strangers, as they bicker and get uncomfortably personal. During lunch, an Italian waitress mistakes the two as married and Binoche, instead of correcting the woman, plays along. From here, the film toys with the audience, at once suggesting that the two may be a long-married couple playing at being strangers, while making it equally as plausible that they are actual strangers who are playing at being married. Throughout the day, they meet various couples against which the viewer can gauge the validity of their possible marriage, and they even visit the tiny hotel room where they may or may not have spent their wedding night.
Of course, this isn’t a mystery, the plot isn’t building towards the “truth” of their relationship, Kiarostami is being playful and the point of the film lies in his ability to make his audience so sure about one thing, and then so sure about the opposite. This all lies in James’ theory about art and artful copies. If the theory is that if a copy is good enough it is as convincing as the real thing, then if this film and all its parts (dialogue, performance, direction, storytelling, etc.) are strong enough (they are) then the audience can easily be manipulated to accept one truth, then another, then back and so on. Performances from Shimell and Binoche are so strong and balanced, that they are able to make such enormous strides, while keeping the conversation organic and their emotions consistent. It is easy to believe Shimell as the charming writer, but also as the absent and selfish father and husband of fifteen years. Binoche, too, is so strong as the firey-tempered fan and hopeful seductress of a favorite writer, but equally so as the lonely and neglected wife and mother. When considered, the distance between the two potential truths here is ridiculous, and that Kiarostami is able to make it so plausible and close is remarkable. Adding to the confusion and trickery, is the notion of translation as it relates to truth and communication. There is a brief discussion about this new translation of James’ book and how he trusted his friend to offer a faithful translation of his work into Italian. Furthermore, the film itself is spoken in Italian, French and English at varying times. This is such a wonderful decision by Kiarostami, as few few audience members could watch and understand all three, so most will have no choice but to accept at least some subtitles and putting their faith in a translator. James and Binoche are constantly switching between the three languages; she speaks all three, he speaks only English and moderate French, the people around them understand Italian only. This is disorienting and incredible, lending to the feeling of trickery, as well as to the notions of trust at play in the film. Watching Certified Copy reminded me so much of Alain Renais’ Last Year At Marienbad (1961), that disorienting film about two people discussing an affair they may or may not have had, through a maze of images and linguistic puzzles.
I waited a long time for Certified Copy and I have been pleasantly surprised. Here is the sort of film that feels almost giddy in its own craft. Kiarostami is enjoying twisting his medium, constructing a complex “what if” only for the sake of being able to do so. This is like a grown up version of Before Sunrise (1995), but it is also an essay about the ellusive nature of objective truth through art. Kiarostami seems to be exploring just how deceptive he can be through his work, while remaining relatively straight-faced throughout.