Looking over my now three-month-old list of the best films of 2010 (which I now realize I should have posted here) I’m noticing how much some of the positioning would change with the benefit of time. The key word there is “some.” There is still no doubt in my mind about the top two films on that list: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. These films, which picked up the Palme d’Or and the best actress award respectively at Cannes last year, are far and away the most beautiful and engaging pieces of cinematic art that I’ve seen from last year. While Boonmee seemingly never expanded beyond the most limited of releases, which is frankly kind of insulting for a Palme d’Or winner, Certified Copy has finally opened at your local art cinema.
Certified Copy stars Juliet Binoche as a nameless French woman living in Tuscany with her son. I’ve always been a huge admirer of her work, and this film only strengthens her claim as one of the finest actresses of her generation. William Shimell, an opera singer making his screen acting debut, is the other lead, an English author of a book on the value of reproduction in art who has come to speak in Tuscany. Having seen the movie three times now, I’m still amazed by how well Shimell can hold his own with someone as talented and experienced as his costar. She attends his talk and seems interested before her son forces her to leave. For some reason, he visits her antique shop the next day, and they decide to spend the day traveling to an old Tuscan town. As they wander around the town, we sense that there is some sort of antagonism between the two characters and that they may have some past together. Eventually they stop at a café, and, in what is by far my favorite moment in the film, she tells the woman running the café that she and the writer have been married for fifteen years. At first this seems like the setup for a screwball comedy, but after a few minutes it becomes clear that this may actually be true. After they leave the café, their conversation changes, they begin speaking in French instead of English and he seems to be playing along. Thus we are left to wonder if they are married people who were pretending to not know each other or single people pretending to be married. We see them reenact parts of their marriage and honeymoon, which supposedly occurred in this same town, and they spend time with older and younger couples who may as well be different versions of themselves.
If there is one way not to react to this film, it is to focus on the supposed mystery at the center. Almost all of the dialogue in the film, particularly when it involves her son, could be interpreted to support either answer, and I do not think Kiarostami really wants us to know if they are married or not. Of course, the answer could be both: we could be seeing both of these moments in their relationship, just with the same actors and the exact same setting. This was my first reaction, but now I realize that it just does not matter. This major thematic concern of the film is a question of the value of reproduction. The writer’s book states that a reproduction of a work of art still has value because it was created by someone, and that a copy can have greater cultural significance than an original. In an interview in the most recent issue of Cineaste, Kiarostami said: “The value of copies is that they can direct us toward the original.” He uses the Mona Lisa as an example. The original is a beautiful painting, but people would not be as aware of it without the endless copies. Does either of their relationships—as two single people with similar interests and as two married people trying to figure out where it went wrong—lose value because it may not be an original? No, of course not. For them, whichever one is just a copy will undoubtedly lead in the right direction, and for us both relationships are emotionally engaging, beautifully filmed and brilliantly acted. Neither affects the audience any more or less than the other, even though logic states that one has to be “false” in some way. Kiarostami also uses lighting and framing techniques that are heavily influenced by, if not directly taken from, classic painting. The fact that they may not be original clearly does nothing to harm the unique beauty of the paintings or the film.
I do not think it is possible to discuss this film without at least briefly mentioning the political situation surrounding its genesis. Following the violent protests surrounding Iran’s rigged 2009 presidential election, the government arrested several prominent filmmakers and clamped down on all freedom of speech. Kiarostami was too big a name to imprison, but he was smart enough to know that in order to make the film he wanted to make, he had to get out. The sense of confusion and displacement felt by the characters and the audience seems like an approximation of what he felt while making the film. Kiarostami is arguably the single most important director in Iranian history, and he can no longer safely make his films at home. The personal issues raised by this sudden transition at least seem to play a role in the marked transition away from the minimalist realism of his earlier films to a more classically European style of filmmaking.
I wish I had a deeper knowledge of the director’s work before writing this review. I’ve only seen Close-Up and Taste Of Cherry, Kiarostami 101 if you will. That being said, Certified Copy is the first major film he has made outside of his native Iran, and it is stylistically different from much of his previous work. Taste Of Cherry and Close-Up (as well as most of his other films, if you go by reputation alone) share a minimalist style that is highly influenced by neo-realism, while Certified Copy shares much more with later European art cinema. Many have compared it to L’avventura and Last Year At Marienbad in particular. I’d like to point out that Certified Copy is far less dense than those classics and much more likely to be enjoyed by a general audience, but the comparison is at least somewhat accurate. All three films create a sense of disorientation among the audience by questioning all of our previous knowledge of the characters and forcing us to see them in many different ways. They are also all stunningly beautiful films which make magnificent use of their settings, and the local architecture in particular, to help create a theme. The most striking example of this in Certified Copy comes about when they are driving away from her store and the entire conversation in the car is framed from the front with her town reflected in the windshield. Here, Kiarostami seems to be asking us if this reflection of the town is any less beautiful than the real thing, which fits perfectly into the film’s thematic concerns. Kiarostami has a reputation for making films that can be slow and difficult to watch if you don’t appreciate his style, but that should not stop anyone from seeing Certified Copy (or any of his previous films for that matter). This movie is engaging, beautifully made, brilliantly acted, occasionally quite funny and it forces the audience to think on a deeper level than anything else in theaters right now.
Certified Copy is unrated, but contains nothing even remotely offensive.
It opens at the Landmark Kendall Square theater on April 1, 2011
Written and Directed by Abbas Kiarostami; director of photography, Luca Bigazzi; edited by Bahman Kiarostami; production design by Giancarlo Basili and Ludovica Ferraro; produced by Abbas Kiarostami, Angelo Barbagallo, Charles Gillibert, Marin Karmitz and Nathanael Karmitz; distributed by IFC Films. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes.