Abbas Kiarostami makes a romantic comedy with Juliette Binoche, but inevitably nothing is quite what it seems.
Whether one considers Abbas Kiarostami the best filmmaker in the world today – and I confess upfront to this particular bias myself – or not, there is no doubt that the Iranian filmmaker is one of the highest profile directors able to progressively take the cinematic medium in a new direction. Some of that work is highly experimental and sometimes closer to an art installation – for the entirety of his most recent film Shirin we simply watch an audience watching an unseen film, and the film previous to that, Five, was made up of five long static shots of a shoreline – but there is a deep human and spiritual aspect at the heart of Kiarostami’s films, and as a filmmaker, he undoubtedly feels it is his duty to question the role that cinema plays in contributing to our understanding of life. And what kind of challenge is left for a progressive director after making films as experimental and high-concept as Five and Shirin? Well, how about the challenge of making a conventional film with an actual script and using real actors.
While it starts out with a standard almost romantic-comedy-like narrative of two characters meeting and getting to know one another, the film examining the bonds and the growing connection between them, it soon becomes clear however that Certified Copy is by no means a conventional film. Is it perhaps a copy of a conventional film, the original (which might be Before Sunrise/Before Sunset) somehow subtly distorted in the process of copying? Such questions about the nature of reality often arise in Kiarostami’s films – and even though the director tries his best to remove any overt directorial influence (in as much as that is even possible for the writer and director of a film), it’s as if at some point the fact has to be faced that we are actually watching a film and not real life. Does the fact that it is not “real” in any way diminish the function and purpose of cinema? Evidently not.
What is fascinating about Certified Copy is how Kiarostami manages to make these profound questions arise naturally out of a simple and seemingly light-hearted situation, filmed in the glorious light and warmth of the Tuscan countryside. The film can be enjoyed simply on the level of a slightly ambiguous romantic comedy, or it can be considered for the deeper questions that arise from it. Juliette Binoche plays an unnamed French woman living near Florence, a mother and proprietor of a little gallery selling objects d’art. Unable to attend the entirety of a personal appearance by English author James Miller (William Shimell), who is in town promoting his new book Copie conforme, a study of the value of replica copies of important works of art, she invites the author over to sign some books and discuss his ideas. Mistaken for being a married couple by people they meet in a neighbouring town, the two of them do indeed seem to fall into the role of a bickering dissatisfied couple. But are they flirtatiously acting parts or do they already know each other and are pretending otherwise?
Kiarostami wrote Certified Copy specifically for Juliette Binoche to play, and one can see how the subject would interest the actress. Similarly looking to expand her range and abilities, Binoche has worked early in her career with challenging roles for André Téchiné, Jean-Luc Godard and Krzysztof Kieslowski, but even after her Oscar-winning English-language performance in The English Patient, she hasn’t been content to be the token French woman in Hollywood film roles, but has continued to seek work with some of the major figures in world cinema, including Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Amos Gitai and Abel Ferrara. Binoche has even extended her interests into painting and dancing, and in some respects, Certified Copy resembles themes explored through dance and movement in her collaboration with Akran Khan ‘In-i’, exploring the life of a couple, with all its moments of communion, exhilaration, trouble and banality compressed and viewed in an expressive encapsulated form.
In Certified Copy, Kiarostami also manages to encompass the lives and the relationship between men and women through a playful series of incidents where it is impossible to determine – as it is in life – how much we are playing a role and how much is real. The question arises here that is not so much the old romantic-comedy notion of will they/won’t they (where the outcome is in any case inevitable), as much as are they/aren’t they, the director leaving open the question of whether they have been married to each other or are just acting through the emotions and situations of where their relationship might potentially go (or have gone), bringing in parallel situations that seem to take them through marriage, honeymoon, having children and growing old, although not in that order.
Appropriately then, Kiarostami told Binoche that the story of Certified Copy was based on a real incident that he experienced, which it turns out isn’t true. Or not completely true, since there are elements of personal experience that evidently go into the script and the characters. As the concept of the film points out however, nothing is real and nothing is completely original, but sometimes, a greater truth and beauty can be found in a shadow of the real thing. Kiarostami takes great pains to emphasise this in the script and through, it has to be said, devices that are slightly more conventional for this filmmaker – the use of mirrors and parallel situations, language and translation adding interpretation to meaning – but his great skill is in opening up his films to the rhythms and complexities of life. Whether that’s in a simple image of a sea-shore in a high-concept film like Five or in the twisting shapes of a cypress tree in a scripted, more conventionally-made movie production like this, the touch and brilliance of Kiarostami is just as evident.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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