May 25, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: Certified Copy

by Vadim Rizov

Certified Copy

Much of what's been written about Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy dilates on the question of whether an afternoon's worth of Italian countryside sparring between "She" (Juliette Binoche) and writer James Miller (William Shimmell) is actually a married couple role-playing a first-time meeting, or if the two are strangers playing a very strange game. Various third options consider the possibility of a film that can't be trusted (Last Year at Marienbad is frequently cited), a mutant text whose every moment must be unceasingly subjected to rigorous questioning to form a remotely plausible hypothesis.

Certified Copy

This rush to extreme interpretation is odd, since Certified Copy can be profitably taken at face value. You can certainly work on it, probe around the edges and come up with theories, but this would seem to be a secondary step rather than the default first move. Certainly Copy is playful, with its first shot—a lectern with a mic, a bottle of water—seemingly threatening an afternoon's worth of academic inquiry, a threat quickly defused. James speaks, and She makes her way to the front but has to leave fast: her brat of a son (Adrian Moore) needs to eat, and teases her about her reason for buying six copies of a book. "You like this James and want to fall in love with him," he says. Note "this": in this incarnation of a marriage that may need reinvigoration through an afternoon's roleplay, James is the graying writer thrives on attention from a younger, potential female acolyte. In another reality, there's another James who's much less lovable.

Perhaps that James is (as he often comes across) a fussy, irritable pedant who's rude to waiters and generally acts like the worst kind of Englishman abroad, fulfilling time-honored stereotypes through his behavior, whose face conveys instant pique when his every joke and word isn't glowingly validated, who says things like "I really don't like having to explain the obvious to you." She's mercurially moody (Binoche covers the entire emotional spectrum from tense irritability to happy glowing), continually re-presenting herself to a man who can only be met on his own terms, as if to see which mode might capture his fancy. The Tuscan village of Lucignano has a church with a steady stream of in-out marital traffic: newly minted husbands and wives and elderly couples surround the pair, offering visual alternate possibilities of their past and future. (Best detail: when James pettily declines to indulge She in a whim that would relieve her tension, behind him you can see a groom offering his bride eyedrops.)

Certified Copy

Kiarostami's first film shot outside of Iran doesn't overtly flaunt his ability to ignore a censor's dictates, though Binoche's mildly cleavage-flaunting dress was enough to get the film barred from public Iranian screening. Kiarostami's film far from home (whose modest erotic charge was sure to preclude exhibition in Iran ) premiered at Cannes, where he the release of jailed former collaborator Jafar Panahi? It's surely an in-joke when Miller begins his lecture with the wish that he could get the same respect at home, but it's also a part of the narrative: "home" may mean England, but it could also mean his domestic life with "She."

Shimmell's an opera singer, making him an obvious candidate to recite English, French and Italian dialogue with equally correct pronunciation, while Binoche is a similar outsider, a French woman living in Italy. The actors are linguistically/location-wise disoriented along with their director, who nonetheless easily reshapes Tuscany into familiar terrain. Miller's cell phone keeps going off at the worst possible moments, like the protagonist of The Wind Will Carry Us, who always keeps running up that rural hill to get reception rather than looking around. A lengthy driving sequence is Kiarostami x 2: shot both from far away to observe the car's progress across the landscape (as in Taste of Cherry, And Life Goes On and effectively his entire '90s body of work) and, inside the car, as if two cameras were pointed at 45-degree angles on the dashboard to record both faces (as in 2002's 10).

CERTIFIED COPY director Abbas Kiarostami

The tourist's gaze is indulged for a larger reason: the cypress trees go from backdrop to talking point when James uses them as part of the ongoing arguments about the intrinsic value of artistic copies. This may not be Kiarostami's densest work, but its ability to turn a simple scenario into the basis for philosophical inquiry is reminiscent of his 1987 Where is the Friend's House?, ostensibly a simple film about a kid trying to make a cross-city trek that doubles as a introductory treatise on epistemology (it might as well have been called What Is the Basis of Knowledge That Allows Us to Say Where the Friend's House Is?). The journey is both towards a concrete destination and a quest for knowledge.

"Maybe this discussion is stopping us from enjoying the view," James says, but for Kiarostami that's not true: a landscape can be enjoyed in all its overt loveliness and simultaneously enfolded into a larger thesis, interpreted and taken at face value depending on your feelings at the moment. The artistically exiled filmmaker finds new possibilities, new types of performances and a fresh start to his fourth decade of work while still insisting that the decision to (not) take events and locations at face value is an active choice. "The way she looks at her husband changes his value," She says of a friend, and that's the viewer's option as well. Certified Copy is simultaneously a face-value-beautiful afternoon and an opportunity for argument. Neither possibility precludes the other: the choice is yours.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by ahillis at May 25, 2012 3:19 AM