Sunday, January 22, 2012

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

Love is a many-morphing thing

An unnamed woman (the gorgeous Juliette Binoche) attends a lecture by author James Miller (British baritone William Shimell), with her son as unwilling companion. Mr. Miller talks of his book Certified Copy, which deals with the nature of reproduced artworks and their originals (you can guess his attitude towards the whole issue by the subtitle: “Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy”); the woman brings six copies of his work which she plans to ask him to sign (to certify, in effect), even if, as she admits to her son, she doesn't like the book.

She invites Miller over to her shop in Arezzo, Tuscany, to a cellar store selling art replicas; the man is coolly interested, the woman nervy and flirtatious--it's obvious that they have some kind of chemistry going. The man wants to leave the city; they agree that she should drive him to the nearby town of Lucignano, half an hour away, just so long as (his only condition) he can be back by nine o'clock to catch his flight.

So begins Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, his first feature film outside of Iran, a teasing, sneakily funny, surprisingly tense trip through the Tuscan countryside with a talkative, thoughtful pair. From the first you notice odd details: the woman tells Miller of her sister Marie, who believes that costume jewelry is as good as real jewelry (Miller observes that what he expressed through a book, Marie seems to simply apply as her life's philosophy); when Miller adds a few words to his autograph of a copy for Marie, the woman is annoyed. “Now she'll never change,” she fumes. You wonder if the woman isn't overreacting; after all, she and Miller have only just met. Later in a cafe the man talks of a mother and son on the streets of Florence; the mother once in a while stopping to wait for the son, who never hurries. “Sounds familiar” the woman tells him, a tear sliding down one cheek--you remember that that was exactly what she and her son had been doing earlier, having left Miller's lecture early (the son sauntering along, the mother far ahead and looking back).

What was that all about? Was the woman merely identifying with that woman and her exasperating teen, or did Miller really see woman and son from the window of his Florence hotel room? Have they met before, are they pretending to have met before, or have the scenes been directed in such a way that you can't definitively tell the difference? Kiarostami's deceptively simple and placid film--basically a man and a woman walking the streets of Tuscany--might seem like an elderly version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995), or the chance couple in Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960). But Kiarostami seems to be playing a far more intricate game (more intricate than Linklater, anyway), forcing those of us with DVD players to rewind and check what's really being said and done (pity the film festival viewers, who only have their memories to fall back on)--one thinks of the inexplicable shifts in mood and identity found in Bunuel's films or David Lynch.

One wonders: are the two role-playing, their roles cued by a cafe waitress who has mistaken them for a married couple? Or are they a married couple long since separated, who were playing at being strangers when they met in Arezzo? One can argue one way or the other (though I think it interesting that the two see each other long before they actually speak to each other, and must have had a chance to think their respective characters through); in this way the film resembles yet another film: Ingmar Bergman's After the Rehearsal (1984) where two people talk out an entire love affair, from passionate initiation to bitter alienation, the entire experience described entirely through words (a thrilling experience). Also possible that Kiarostami himself never meant any rational explanation, that the relationship between Miller and the woman are meant to remain in a state of flux, evolving emotionally, if not narratively.

As for the question of copies and originals, I suppose I must admit my ignorance and say: what's the problem? At one point in the film it's said that even a painting as great as the Mona Lisa must have been based on an original face. Certainly that face belonged to someone, that someone is a human being, and humans are possibly the most complex and unreproducible entity in the world, but the challenge is in communicating the experience of meeting that human, that complex and unreproducible being--that's where the art comes in. Is a fresh leg of pork tastier than an air-dried ham? Is a man's experience of a countryside picnic greater than Renoir's Partie de campagne (Day in the Country, 1936)? In each case the experience--complete and whole--is simplified and distilled, the essence mysteriously captured and manipulated according to the artisan's skills and sensibility and, if he does the work right, evokes that experience with far greater eloquence and significance than the mere accumulation of details would imply. Kiarostami must have been inspired by some real-life incident that happened to him; is that experience, shapeless and incommunicable, greater than this resulting film? I have no definite answers; I can only ask.

First published in Businessworld, 1.12.12

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