Friday, February 05, 2016
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Writers: Caroline Eliacheff, Abbas Kiarostami
Photography: Luca Bigazzi
Editor: Bahman Kiarostami
Cast: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell
Maybe it's the European art film gloss that director and co-writer Abbas Kiarostami has wrapped around this puzzle-box picture, but it's always been easy for me to like it the way you fall in love, swooning with delight and surprise. The main players are handsome and well appointed, the setting is the gorgeous Tuscany, and the in-the-know references to movies like Journey to Italy and Richard Linklater's Before... series are clonking yet not oppressive, with a brazen charm of their own. It is a pleasure to sit and look at this weird thing, full of familiar cues yet baffling. Forget about trying to solve the distracting mystery at its center, which is the relationship between James Miller (William Shimell) and Elle (Juliette Binoche). It's beside the point, except insofar as it's suggestion of a simulacrum of marriage and/or relationships. The more germane preoccupation here is with artifice and authenticity. I think.
Miller is an art critic who has just published a book called Copie conforme—or Certified Copy, if you will. It has been "awarded best foreign essay of the year." For some editions, his publisher has insisted on the title Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy. The first scene shows Miller at a stop on a book promotion tour he is obviously tired of, giving a presentation, to a small group of book club types. He has clearly given it many times before. In fact, he arrives late, saying the day is so nice and it's such a shame to come inside for this. One senses how many times he has said the things he dutifully begins to drone: "The copy itself has worth in that it leads us to the original and, in this way, certifies its value." He says, by way of declaring his place: "I'm not a member of the artistic establishment." Let's stop here a second. The movie is full of sly moments such as this, packed full of conflicting meaning.
For Shimell, who plays Miller, his appearance here actually happens to be his first in a feature film. As his day job, he is an opera singer of great reputation in the UK. Thus this single line of throwaway dialogue—"I'm not a member of the artistic establishment"—can be made to unravel in numerous directions. Most obviously it is the character in the movie putting on a show of modesty, part of the self-effacing artifices of civilization. Because he is an art critic with a popular book, it is easy to take issue with what he says, "artistic establishment" being notoriously difficult to pin down in the first place. No one is a member of the artistic establishment, in the same way that no one is conventional or hidebound, by their own admission. But he is also, in a way, declaring to movie viewers that he is a novice. Strip away all the artifice, for the sake of this thought experiment, and what is left is the striking image of a bald lie, a famous and celebrated opera singer standing in a stone room in Italy disclaiming, for the sake of making a movie, his obvious ties to the working arts industry.
These little upending bits of business never stop in Certified Copy, which returns again and again to the themes of originality and copies. Translation, for example, is a kind of copying, yet a translation is also a creative enterprise. That is underscored here in subtle, unsettling ways, and not just by the appearance of translators—multiple languages and varying facilities with them are often key in some strange way. Miller starts out perfectly fluent in Italian, for example, but later on in the movie can barely manage it.
Which brings us back to the mystery the movie constantly teases us with—this shifting, warping, bizarre relationship of the two principals. For an opera singer, Shimell is poised and competent in his role. It's Juliette Binoche as Elle who puts on a clinic, leading them as in a dance as the relationship turns into shapes of mist that only reform again into something else, sometimes in a matter of moments. It can come across as stagy and studied, but is surprisingly more often effective. At some points, as the first time they go to a restaurant for coffee, you can almost see the relationship changing in front of your eyes, shifting in incremental stutter steps of flirtation, formality, and peevishness, and then stepping back again into remote bonds of acquaintances. But why—what's causing these events, these changes?
Like planets falling into one another in a science fiction film, their orbits, we feel instinctively, are locked into a doomed cycle, and it was too late even before the events of the movie began. All that's left is the gravity and the spiraling (the scenes we remember well from Journey to Italy). Miller and Elle start out in the beginning of this movie as casual acquaintances and they end up estranged but married 15 years, in the hotel where they spent their honeymoon—and all of it happens on a single pleasant afternoon. When they are not bickering, they are trying to discuss ideas about originality and artifice. When they are not discussing ideas of originality and artifice, they are ripping out each other's guts. What's the copy here? What's the original?
Much of what makes this movie work so well—and it's a very good one—is how expertly Miller and especially Binoche play the roles of people tortured by the need for connection. Brides, weddings, and other symbols of marriage are dotted all through, and the further along the movie goes into the married phase of this couple, the more desperate it becomes. Cell phone calls constantly interrupt them. Among other things, Certified Copy is a spot-on treatment of the kind of travel that happens in a bad relationship when partners decide travel is what will help—protracted, bitter, unforgivable arguments that ruin everything. Yet it's also playful, even pulling off Tati-like sight gags when it's of a mind. The movie ends on one more bald swipe, this time from Before Sunset: the clock tolls 8, and Miller has a train to catch at 9. There's no joy or Nina Simone in this case. The sense is he'll be on that train. But you never know.