Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Movie Review: Certified Copy

Certified Copy ****
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami.
Written by: Abbas Kiarostami.
Starring: Juliette Binoche (She), William Shimell (James Miller), Jean-Claude Carrière (The Man at the Square), Agathe Natanson (The Woman at the Square), Gianna Giachetti (The Café Owner), Adrian Moore (The Son).

Perhaps it is time for me to reevaluate my feelings of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. I had judged him on the basis of two films (admittedly, never a smart thing to do) Taste of Cherry, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1997, and which I found to be a thudding bore and 10, which was one of his "experimental films" which I found to be even more boring, and so I have avoided his films since. But his latest film, Certified Copy, is one of the most fascinating films of the year so far. It has been compared to everything for Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby to Rosselini’s Voyage in Italy to Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad to Antonini’s L’Aventurra to Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love to Linklater’s twin films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset to the late work of Luis Bunuel. The strange thing about Certified Copy is that all of those comparisons are apt, and at the same time none of them are. This is a film unto itself – wholly original and unique.

The film stars Juliette Binoche and William Shimell as two people who may or may not be married. We first meet them as he is late to his own lecture about his new book, which argues that copies are just as good as originals in art. She arrives even later, and leaves before the lecture is over. We see her argue with her young son, who wonders why if she hated the man’s book so much, why does she want to meet him, and get him to sign copies of the book for everyone she knows? Then the two characters do meet, they argue, and eventually they get into a car to travel to another town close by in Tuscany where there is something she wants to show him. In these scenes, the two do genuinely seem to be going throw the typical getting to know each other romantic conversations we have seen before. But everything shifts during a scene in a café they stop at to have coffee. He leaves to take a cell phone call, and the owner of the café says she can tell the two of them are fighting, but they generally, he is a good husband. Binoche doesn’t correct her, but instead tells a long story about their marriage and their wedding day. When Shimell comes back to the table, she reveals that the café manager “mistook” them for a married couple, and she didn’t correct her. From then on, the two behave as a married couple – arguing about the past and the present in scenes that feel real as well. We are left with the interpretation that in one of the two halves of the movie, the characters are play acting. Either in the first half, they are a married couple pretending to have just met each other, or in the second half, they have just met each other but are pretending to be a married couple. Or are they? If they were genuinely married, why does the son question her about the man they just met? Is he playacting as well? But if they had just met, how does Shimell know the personal details of their marriage that she revealed only to the café owner when he was away taking the phone call?

There are a few way you can take Certified Copy. You can either drive yourself mad, trying to figure it all out, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together as many have done. Or you can simply go with the film, and accept that you will never know. Many critics have taken the first approach, and the explanations have run from the simple (that in one part or the other they are playacting) to the complex – that the character have become lost in time, and that both are real, but don’t happen the way we as an audience experience them, but there are really years in between the two halves of the movie or that the young couple we see getting married in the background is really these same two characters years before, and the old couple at the fountain (including a cameo by Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere) are them as an older couple. There are other interpretations, and no one can seem to agree on which one is real, and which one isn’t.

And I think, that’s precisely the point. That at the same time everything we see in Certified Copy is real, and everything we see is not real. The scenes as they play out in front of us are real at the time we are watching them – the characters are precisely who they seem to be at all times. And yet, because this is a movie and Binoche and Shimell are actors playing these characters, they are also always a fake – a copy of real people if you will. The line between cinematic reality and fantasy has been blurred to point where it is indistinguishable in this film. This was true of Taste of Cherry to a certain extent as well – where Kiarostami takes great pains to remind the audience again and again that we are watching a movie. This time, he doesn’t need to do that, because right from the beginning of the movie, he tells us what the film is going to be about. You just need to pay attention.

All of this will likely sound like a pretentious bore to many people – and to those who hate the film, I can’t really argue. You could easily hate the film because Shimell plays his characters as a somewhat arrogant twat and Binoche becomes an annoying nag as the film goes along. Both of their performances however, especially Binoche’s (who proves once again, she is one of the biggest risk takers out there right now) fit into the world that Kiarostami has established here, and they fit in perfectly (those who complain that Shimell is wooden miss the point that he is supposed to be wooden).

Some of Kiarostami’s more adamant admirers didn’t really like Certified Copy, which to them represented him selling out, or simply him goofing off. Perhaps they are right about either of those things. But to me, Certified Copy is a film that makes me want to go back and see more Kiarostami films, which I didn’t think possible after seeing Taste of Cherry. The fact that Kiarostami cast an Oscar winning French actress, and a well known British opera singer in his leads is not Kiarostami selling out – but rather, I believe was necessary for him to make Certified Copy the success it is. After all, with this film, isn’t Kiarostami making a certified copy of the European art films of the past? While Certified Copy may not be the masterpiece that some of the films I mentioned at the lead of this review are, it is as close as we are likely to get in this day of age. Certified Copy deserves to be seen, discussed and seen again.

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