Cinema is one of the most illusory and deceptive art forms, largely because it so frequently falsely presents itself as representing some kind of reality. Every cinematic movement that has attempted to portray realism is simply a new approach to narrative and style that at the time is accepted as accurately reflecting reality. However, this doesn’t mean that there is something untrue or inauthentic about cinema. One of the wonderful things about film is its ability to harness its essentially manipulative power to connect with an audience emotionally and intellectually. It is often the films that are the most blatantly ‘unrealistic’ that reach the viewer on a deeper level of almost intuitive understanding, transcending simplistic judgments about whether the film is believable or not. This relates to all great art and the idea that an artificial representation of life can convey as much power and meaning as an ‘authentic’ experience is what filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami explores in the sophisticated, playful and perfectly titled Certified Copy.
Kiarostami’s theme of authenticity in artifice is expressed both directly in the extended conversation between the film’s two protagonists that constitutes the plot of the film, and in the experience of watching the film itself. Certified Copy defies any attempt to be viewed passively as its meaning and power is dependant on an active viewer being aware of how the film constructs itself. The theme of a reproduction being of equal value to the original is explored throughout every element. Lines of dialogue are repeated without losing their impact, information is translated into different languages without a loss of clarity, shots are repeated, reflective surfaces often reveal who or what is being spoken about, and the entire film situates itself as a commentary on the way art expresses life by reproducing feelings and thoughts into something tangible.
The narrative of the film and all the dialogue explicitly engages with the question of can a reproduced object possess the same beauty and value as the original. One of the film’s two protagonists is an English writer, played by opera singer William Shimell, who has just written a book making this argument. Throughout the film he converses with a French art dealer, played by Juliette Binoche, who is fascinated by him but troubled by his conclusions. Set in Tuscany in Italy, the English man and the French woman are surrounded by examples of original art and reproductions, which fuels their debate. About midway through the film the pair begin to play out the roles of an estranged married couple. Or do they? Are they in fact an actual married couple who until the midway point had been pretending to be strangers? One half of the film is therefore an act and while it may be entertaining to debate which half is ‘real’ and which half is ‘pretend’, the point is that both halves are compelling viewing. The ‘false’ half is just as meaningful, evocative and convincing as the ‘true’ half.
Then there is the film itself, which like all films is an artificial representation of reality. However, Kiarostami goes a lot further to establish his film as a beautiful copy. The married couple bickering narrative so closely resembles Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy that Certified Copy could be declared a sort of unofficial remake. Next are the ways in which Kiarostami repeats shots and shot set-ups to deliberately recall his previous films. For example, the scene where the couple are driving in a car is shot from only three camera positions – a straight-on shot of the pair through the windscreen (on which the beautiful landscape they are discussing is reflected) and then one shot fixed on Binoche and another on Shimell. The basic yet effective two-camera set-up for the driver and passenger seats shots is the same set-up that Kiarostami used throughout Ten. Kiarostami is deliberately repeating himself and in no way does it dilute the final product. That’s the point.
Finally, the way that Kiarostami shoots many of the key conversation scenes in Certified Copy is a deliberate reflection on the influence that Toyko Story writer/director Yasujiro Ozu has had on his work. Kiarostami makes substantial use of Ozu’s approach to presenting dialogue where instead of shooting and editing in the traditional shot-reverse-shot pattern, each person is filmed speaking straight on so that they appear in the middle of screen and look almost directly into the camera. It is as if the viewer is situated inside the conversation with each character addressing them directly. While this filming device is distinctive of Ozu’s cinema, again re-enforcing the copy/reproduced art theme, Kiarostami also uses the effect to create an intense intimacy between the viewer and the characters. Characters who for at least half the film are pretending to be other people.
Were Certified Copy simply an essay film or a puzzle film that required decoding then it would still be impressive but its beauty, nuanced performances and grace give it the emotional and dramatic weight that make it rise far above being simply an intellectual exercise. It is about perception and the validity of different viewpoints over objective facts where the authenticity of a work of art, or an experience, resolves in the way individuals respond to it. For a film that demands so much audience involvement, it somehow also effortlessly sweeps the viewer away.
Couldn’t agree with you more about this Thomas. In fact this is just about the highest rating I’ve seen any critic give it. I’m probably around the 4 star mark; definitely one of the highlights of MIFF last year. It’s certainly a contentious film though, it’s strange how many people seem to detest it.
It’s interesting to revisit it too, trying to pick up early signs one way or another – and still a challenge to come to any definitive conclusion!
Binoche fully deserves the plaudits, and though Shimmell seems to have been universally copping flak, I actually liked him in the role despite his obvious lack of experience, an element that Kiarostami has certainly been able to work positively into his other films.
Thanks for this review Thomas, I went to see the film today; it’s been on my list for a must see since MIFF where I didn’t make it to the screening. Your thoughtful references to Ten resolved the ‘senior’ moment where I knew I’d seen a film that used similar techniques and couldn’t recall which one it was. As always Binoche is a standout. I left the cinema feeling very satisfied with the visual beauty of the film, that technique of framing each scene as if it’s a ‘still’ photographic portrait. I loved how the use of the meandering laneways and roads complemented the meandering replication of the storyline. I also loved Journey to Italy and glad you have referenced it; yet another prompt for my sluggish Monday brain. This film has so many layers I will watch it again I think and enjoy peeling back a few more of them.
Thanks for your comments David and Kay, and David I enjoyed reading your review too.
Until recently I was never all that interested in Kiarostami as a filmmaker, which is why I didn’t bother seeing this film at MIFF last year. So watching Certified Copy was quite a revelation for me and I’m very keen to revisit his earlier films and catch up on the many I am yet to see. It’s quite exciting to have recently seen the light and I suppose better later than never!
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