Thursday, April 14, 2011

review: Certified Copy

Copie conforme/Certified Copy (2010, Abbas Kiarostami)

Imagine looking at what appears to be a remarkable work of art. It possesses great detail, wonderful ambition and fills you up with a wide array of thoughts and emotions, just as good works of art should. Suddenly you are told that the object which caught your eyes is nothing more than a replicate of an artist’s original work. The one before you still has the same amount of detail and beauty as it did moments ago, yet chances are your perception of the object has changed drastically, most likely for the worse. Now think of a friendship you once had with someone in particular. Much time has elapsed and your paths have diverged. Maybe there was a rupture between the two of you. You both meet again some time later, and while pleasantries are exchanged and the conversation remains civil, neither is under the illusion that everything is alright. What you have now with that person is but a manufactured copy of sorts of what used to bind you. In each case the copies are satisfying in some respects, but ultimately feel hollow. 

Abbas Kiarostami, for all the praise heaped on him, is not a director whose work I am very familiar with. In fact, if memory serves me well, the only film of his I have had the opportunity to discover was not even a feature length effort, but rather a short that completed a trilogy of stories in a film titled Tickets. From little I have read about the writer-director, he has a knack for thinking outside the box when approaching his work (Close-Up sounds particularly unique), and it would appear his idiosyncrasies as a director found their way into his latest project, Certified Copy. It all begins simply enough, with a encounter between an unnamed woman (Juliette Binoche) who works as an art dealer and an author, James Miller (William Shimell), who is in a small Tuscan village to promote his latest book on art, Certified Copy.  Together they drive off for some lovely sight-seeing and some conversations about everything and nothing. How the two people know each other is unclear at first but they seem to get along reasonably well, her the excitable and emotional one, him more stoic and analytic but still charming nonetheless. Then, all of a sudden, as they walk out of a cozy café, the topics of their conversations and the very nature of the relationship between the two morph into something else entirely. They are, or ‘were’ more specifically, a married couple. The rest of the film follows them walk through the charming little streets of a town as they look back at what went wrong between them.  Is this real or is director Kiarostami leading the viewer astray?

Certified Copy is a little mystery wrapped in a puzzle. For starters, there is the abrupt switch in tone and nature of the relationship between the two protagonists. Were there any hints in the first section of the film that the two knew each other? Obviously a re-watch is in order if we are to wrestle with that issue. Another question one might ask is ‘does it matter?’ The film has a free flowing style that permits it to let go of conventions and embrace wherever it is these two people take the viewer. It does not take long for the shift to enter a comfort zone and lure the viewer into following these two vastly different people who apparently used to be in love. Their personalities surely had a role to play in the destruction of the love they once shared. However, determined as the woman may be to pry any sort of emotional recognition out of James, the latter bats away her attempts with pseudo-intellectual talk to explain in detached manner how her thinking is off base. It is only much later when, upon sitting down at a restaurant, James finally gives into any raw emotion, and the results are not necessarily pleasant. The unnamed woman can be seen as trying to live a copy of what her life used to be with James. The latter however is more aware that things shall never revert back to how they were. She is the copy whereas he is the original, unchanged man who has no illusions about the reality which befalls them. Just as it was was alluded to in the first paragraph of the article, copies simply cannot be up to par with the real thing. It is therefore interesting to see the woman’s efforts at rekindling something with the James character thwarted at several moments during the film. There is a scene in near the beginning when her young son questions her intentions about meeting up with the author and her calm fails her. Another takes place near a beautiful fountain in a square where an attempt to explain to James the magnificence of said fountain becomes more frustrating than inspiring. At last, there is the final scene where the woman’s attempts at seducing James suffer one last blow, ironically in the little hotel where they apparently spent their honeymoon, yet another reference to this notion of copying things. Then again, all of this might be just Kiarostami intentionally changing the story once the two people leave that café by having them play act all of this out and offer a ‘copy’ of what a tattered marriage is like, although that explanation does not feel as satisfying . Either way one chooses to understand the structure of the movie, Certified Copy is a film where the boundaries of conventional storytelling melt away the palms of the director. 

There is no secret regarding Juliette Binoche’s talents as an actress. She has accomplished a lot throughout her career, her greatest strength being the ease with which she slips in and out of all sorts of characters. Binoche’s character of the unnamed women is one that forces her show a bit more desperation than usual. She is intent on living the day in the best way possible despite the annoyances that plague her life, such as her son’s ungrateful attitude and her sister’s habits. It makes for a dynamic performance where the actress gets to play a seductress sometimes, while others time feeling fed up with every new (or old) challenge that steps in her way. William Shimell, a baritone by profession, surprisingly matches Binoche pound for pound, albeit with a totally different acting style than his co-star. He shows far less emotion throughout, preferring to remain analytical and aloof almost to a fault. The more the film reveals about their compatibility or lack thereof, the less surprising it feels that are not longer together.

Certified Copy is a strange little movie experience which defies what one might expect from a love story. It is an anti-love story of sorts, but in an effortless sort of way that simply takes the viewer for a sometimes uncomfortable stroll through Tuscany. Its qualities rest with the performances on display and the confidence with which Abbas Kiarostami treads his own path in telling sad tale. He is now a director whose work I will actively seek out from now on.


Mike Lippert said...

I have yet to see this so I didn't read the review in full but having covered the script well over a year ago I can say that although I found it compelling, just like Taste of Cherry, I also found it pretentious and self-indulgant. I am suprised by the positive reviews and therefore am looking forward to seeing it to just see how, lifing this kind of thing off the page gives it life and meaning that wasn't present before.

edgarchaput said...

@Mike: You 'covered, the script? You has a say in what went in?

As far as prententiousness goes, I didn't really feel any. It is certainly a movie that is different, but I felt that it did so in an effortless kind of way, not as though it was trying to hard to get itself noticed. The only moment that demands atetntion is the precise one when the nature of their relatinship shifts. That's pretty 'Huh, what just happened ?!?'

edgarchaput said...

Jesus, I wrote that in a hurry. Sorry for the awful mistakes.

Mike Lippert said...

Edgar - To Clarify, I am a paid script reading so when we provide "coverage" on a script it means read it and write a report which includes sumarizing the entire plot, making a vlue judgement and providing a recommendation of what action to take.

moviesandsongs365 said...

Nice review! From your piece, the film sounds like The Big Chill meets Before sunrise, both are favourites of mine, so I'm eager to see Certified Copy.

Tastes of cherry by the same director also had random small talk on a car journey, but was a little too depressing for me at least.

edgarchaput said...

@moviesandsongs: I have not even seen 'Tastes of Cherry' unfortunately. The comparison to Before Sunrise is probably apt. If you liked that movie, odds are you'll like this as well.