Film review – Certified Copy (2010)

17 February 2011
Certified Copy: James Miller (William Shimell) and she (Juliette Binoche)

James Miller (William Shimell) and she (Juliette Binoche)

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.

Certified Copy: Juliette Binoche and William ShimellThe 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.

Certified Copy: Juliette Binoche and William ShimellFinally, 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.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Summer Hours (2008)

3 April 2009
Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Frédéric (Charles Berling)

Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Frédéric (Charles Berling)

Summer Hours (L’Heure d’été) originally began as an initiative by Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. It was to be a short film that would have been part of a project examining the relationship between art and cinema. The full project never happened but French director Olivier Assayas (Clean, Irma Vep) went ahead with the original idea and made Summer Hours as a feature. The resulting film is gentle family drama that uses the dynamic between three siblings to explore the relationship between people and art. Summer Hours begins with the 75th birthday celebrations for Hélène (played by prolific French actor Edith Scob), the niece of a famous painter. Hélène’s country house is filled with her uncle’s extraordinary 19th century art collection, which she wants her three 40-something children to sell once she dies. Later when Hélène does die the siblings need to decide what to do. Frédéric (Charles Berling who also appear in Assayas’s demonlover and Les destinées sentimentales) wants to preserve his mother’s home and art collection but his brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier from In Bruges and L’Enfant) and sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) now live abroad and can’t see any reason not to sell everything.

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Film review – Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)

3 June 2008

Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is often compared to the legendary Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu who also had a minimalist approach to filmmaking, which focused on small moments of human emotion. Hou’s episodic, slice-of-life Flight of the Red Balloon is not a children’s film but it pays homage to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short The Red Balloon about a French boy who is followed by a mysterious red balloon.

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Film review – Dan in Real Life (2007)

12 February 2008

In Dan in Real Life Steve Carell leaves behind his comedic personae to once again play a melancholic 40-something type character, as he so brilliantly did in Little Miss Sunshine. This time Carell is Dan, a widower with three daughters, who while on a family weekend meets Marie (Juliette Binoche), falls madly for her and then discovers she is his brother’s new girlfriend.

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DVD review – Damage (1992), Region 4, Roadshow

3 February 2006

When originally released in 1992 Damage created a minor fuss with its exploration of the relationship between pain and desire, articulated by an affair between a British MP (Jeremy Irons) and his son’s fiancé (Juliette Binoche). Watching it now it is a mystery why this tedious film generated any interest at all.

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