Sunday, March 27, 2011

CERTIFIED COPY (Copie conforme, 2010)

Overheard outside the theater, after the show: "It was very French." Mais non, it was written and directed by an Iranian, Abbas Kiarostami, working away from home for the first time. As far as I know, he was a tourist, not an exile, and in a way Certified Copy is a tourist's film, though Kiarostami's less concerned with landscape than with the human-scale experience of tourism. He uses lots of long takes and tracking shots through Tuscany during his characters' allegedly random trip. His style, which has set the tone for much of the Iranian film industry, has been called a kind of neorealism. It's mimetic and immersive rather than conventionally dramatic, though this film will seem more dramatic than his others because much of the dialogue is in English. As a rule, Kiarostami gives you a strong sense of place and time, and that remains true here.

Maybe the confused cinemagoer quoted above gets to the issue of the film. Identifying the Iranian's effort as "very French" may mean he was successful at evoking if not copying the sensibility and alleged difficulty of French film. It helps to have Juliette Binoche involved. She seems to be the Meryl Streep of the rest of the world, the go-to actress for globally ambitious directors. When Hou Hsiao-Hsien ventured outside Taiwan to film in Europe, he hired Binoche for The Flight of the Red Balloon. The actress is fluent in English, has an Oscar to her credit, and may be the nearest thing we have today to a globally-recognized star who doesn't pretend to fight for a living. She won an award for her work here at last year's Cannes Film Festival, while the film itself got a more mixed reception. Kiarostami has been panned for derivativeness and obscurity but praised for allusiveness and playfulness. His style is definitely an acquired taste because he doesn't employ conventional attention-grabbing dramatic devices. Most American viewers will depend on the actors to carry them through the rough patches, but Kiarostami has paired Binoche with a movie novice, the British opera singer William Shimmel. I think he did all right but his work was cut out for him by an initially deliberate vagueness about his actual relationship to the Binoche character. That vagueness may prove fatal for the film for many people.

Shimmel plays a British author promoting his new book, Certified Copy, in Italy. Binoche attends his lecture (and has a reserved seat) and later brings him multiple copies of the book to sign when he visits her art shop. Since he has time to kill before his train leaves, they decide to take a purportedly random road trip that soon proves less than spontaneous. While critics feel obliged to ruminate upon the significance of copies and the meaning of the author's thesis on copies, as if this were a film by Walter Benjamin, there's only one "copy" that really means anything to the story. Explaining this may spoil things, so read cautiously. It emerges eventually that the protagonists are an estranged couple, and that their ultimate destination is the town where they were married 15 years ago, the object being to rekindle that initial spark. The author's thesis is that a copy is just as good as the original depending on its meaning for the owner or viewer, but the film's thesis is more ambivalent. Experience isn't the same as art, nor repetition the same as reproduction. You can't expect a do-over to have the same result, though different may not necessarily mean worse. Kiarostami actually ends the film with a kind of cliffhanger, a will he or won't he moment whose unpredictability may be part of the director's point.

Copie conforme could seem like a film about nothing to some people, and it's not as if everyone's obliged to see significance in the couple's troubles. I was entertained because the main characters impressed me as intelligent people and the actors did their jobs well. My only hangup is with the early vagueness about their relationship. The fact that the Binoche character takes a reserved seat for the lecture implies a close relationship with the author, but their encounter at the store comes across like a first meeting of strangers. Later, at a restaurant, Binoche "pretends" to a waitress that Schimmel is her husband, and at times it seems like the couple is engaged in a questionably-motivated role-playing exercise. Maybe I'm misinterpreting these scenes but it also felt as if Kiarostami was trying to trick the audience for a while. Fortunately, the film gets stronger once the trickery is set aside and Kiarostami grounds himself in emotional truth. He's a humane director even if his style seems pretentious or off-putting. He's interested in inspiring empathy, and if you're interested in experiencing it, Certified Copy should prove a mostly rewarding experience.

The trailer was uploaded to YouTube by trailers.


Sam Juliano said...

"My only hangup is with the early vagueness about their relationship. The fact that the Binoche character takes a reserved seat for the lecture implies a close relationship with the author, but their encounter at the store comes across like a first meeting of strangers..."

This is a very valid point here Samuel, and one my wife broached in the car on the way home from the IFC Film Center! I was too far into fantasyland to bother about it myself, but it appears Kiarostami didn't feel this delineation was necessary in what he trying to do here, which of course was to frame the middle age crisis and lack of connection. I didn't realize they were married until a third of the way through the film, though again this was seemingly a deliberate deceit, for the film to develop its emotional underpinnings slowly. I though Binoche was magnificent, and the film's sensuality was intoxicating.

Superb piece here as always!

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I assumed they were married initially because I assumed that was why the Binoche character occupied a reserved seat at the lecture, but it could have been reserved for her by virtue of her standing as an art dealer or her friendship with the host. When her kid started teasing her for seeming to have a crush on the lecturer, I began to have my doubts and the Shimmel character's tentative entrance to the shop and their chat afterward increased them. The trailer clearly leaves their status as a surprise to be revealed, but I think the trickery was almost superfluous to the story unless you count it as an attempt to "copy" the start of their life together. The ambiguity of the ending (as I saw it) did much to redeem the contrivance.