CIFF 2010: Certified Copy (Copie Conforme, 2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ever pushing his own boundaries, renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, making his first film outside of his own country, has taken on what would be a controversial topic in Iran—a love story. Saddled with restrictions on the depiction of women, largely barred from shooting in homes, and forced to suggest desire through the use of classic Persian poetry, Kiarostami has approached this common Western preoccupation almost as if he were still worried about the censors. His love story is elliptical to the point of frustration for many viewers, but in my humble opinion, his strategy is much more straightforward than some people are giving it credit for. Pity the poor Western moviegoer who is so used to paint-by-numbers plotting that a little imagination in the art of seduction can throw us into a tailspin.

Let me say from the get-go that the “theoretical” set-up for the film is better dispensed with as an elaborate McGuffin Kiarostami sets in motion to have a little fun with the intellectuals in the crowd. To wit: Certified Copy, the book that brings English author James Miller (William Shimell) together with an unnamed antiquities dealer played by Juliette Binoche, posits that a copy of a work of art can be just as valuable as the original. Offering this theory to audiences amounts to giving them a security blanket of rational thought to cling to as their confusion grows in the second half of the film.

The film begins in a lecture hall in the Tuscan town of Arezzo where Miller will discuss his book. He thanks the Italians for giving his book a warm reception that he regrets it did not receive in England, and feels that if the country that gave birth to Michelangelo and Da Vinci can embrace his ideas, he must have done his job well. Coming late, the woman sits down next to her friend (Angelo Barbagallo), who translated the book into Italian, and chats with him quietly while her son Julien (Adrian Moore) stands against a wall and texts. His hunger forces them to leave almost as soon as they arrive, but before she goes, she gives her phone number to her friend to give to Miller. We watch as she and Julien walk in fits and starts down the street, she far ahead of the lumbering boy who forces her to stop periodically, look back, and then continue walking once he has caught up. The two stop for a hamburger, and Julien taunts her for buying six copies of a book she says annoyed her, accurately assessing that his mother has romance on her mind. She becomes furious with him and leaves the table when he asks her why she won’t let his surname be used; this exchange and her reaction cannot be understood by the audience and is one of several moments in the film Kiarostami leaves unexplained or out of our reach.

That Sunday, Miller arrives at the woman’s shop for their date. The shop is below street level and very dark. He hears her speaking on the phone in French in her home above the shop, calls out a weak “hello,” and waits for her to find him. Rather startlingly, she descends the stairs wearing a spaghetti-strap, silk top with her bra straps and the top of her bra visible, but Miller seems to take no notice. He suggests they abandon the dungeon-like shop to enjoy the beautiful day. The woman asks him why he doesn’t like her shop. This is the beginning of a lengthy sparring match they will have as they drive to the town of Lucignano, whose famous L’albero della vita attracts couples on their wedding day who believe it bestows blessings for a happy married life.

From the moment the woman and Miller find themselves surrounded by couples in tuxedos and wedding gowns, things start to get strange. Initially, she takes him to a museum to show him a famous painting that was thought to be an original for centuries, but was found to be a reproduction. Although now labeled as a copy, the painting is still protected by an alarm-rigged glass box of the type in which such famous works as the Mona Lisa are now encased. Miller shows no interest, having finished his book and feeling unwilling to argue his points yet again. After being dragged around Lucignano, he begs for a cup of coffee. Just as they are served, he gets a call on his cellphone, which he takes outside. The cafe owner (Gianna Giachetti) mistakes the woman and Miller for a married couple and talks to her about marriage. The woman tells her they have been married for 15 years and complains that he works all the time, but the cafe owner thinks this is good. When Miller and the woman leave the cafe, she tells him they were mistaken for a married couple, an error she did not correct. “We must make a good couple,” he replies, with intrigued bemusement in his voice. For the rest of the film, the pair will pretend to be that married couple.

Play-acting is a common enough aspect of romance. If we are not actively living out the illusions that come with the first blush of love, then we may try to spice up a longer-term relationship with a bit of fantasy—a wife will dress up like a parlor maid, for example, or a couple will pretend to be strangers who meet in a public place and go home for a one-night stand. The odd aspect of the play-acting the pair in Certified Copy engages in is that their “marriage” is in crisis. The sparring that began as their real selves in the drive to Lucignano—master of the filmed car ride, a great touch Kiarostami includes is photographing them so that the reflection in the windshield of the buildings that line the narrow streets of Arezzo appear to be crashing down on them in some seismic disaster—only escalates when they get to Lucignano. For example, they sit down to a late lunch, and the woman goes to the restroom to apply a screaming-red lipstick and attach one of two pairs of large, gaudy earrings she brought with her to pretty herself up. Coming back looking like a child who has played dress-up, she finds Miller enraged by a corked bottle of wine and a waiter who is ignoring his request for a fresh bottle. She says it tastes good to her. “Of course, I forgot, the French know everything about wine!” he bellows before leaving the restaurant.

This film is troubling not merely because it goes in a direction that is played so sincerely that we become confused about whether the pair is actually married or not. The woman seems if not outright unbalanced, then certainly emotionally distressed. Miller first becomes aware of her vulnerability in the cafe when he relates a story of seeing a mother and son walking through a square in Florence that is identical to the way she and Julien walked together at the beginning of the film. A tear streams down her cheek, and she says by way of explanation that it seems very familiar. Could she and Julien have been that mother and son? Was this a time in her life when her loneliness in her marriage led to divorce? The speculation will remain just that, but the possibility of reliving a hurt to arrive at a different outcome may have occurred to them both on some level at that moment. When they end up sitting on the steps of a pensione, an invitation for a “do-over” of their wedding night is sure to follow. How far Miller is willing to go—it’s clear from the start that the seduction has been part of the woman’s plan all along—is the greatest mystery, one Kiarostami leaves hanging for us to meditate on.

It is hugely satisfying to see how Kiarostami weaves his career-long obsessions and filming techniques into an entirely new type of film for him. While he films indoors, quite effectively, he never actually shoots inside a person’s home. He is able to shoot a married couple in the privacy of their honeymoon suite, but only because they are not really married. It’s ingenious, really. And, of course, his concerns with identity, most movingly rendered in Close-up, and reality versus fantasy, seen in such films as Taste of Cherry, are at the core of this film.

By having Shimell and Binoche move into such a realistic portrayal of a married couple, Kiarostami confuses the audience about what the story “really” is, though, of course, both parts of the film are entirely fictional. He continues his habit of mixing verité location shooting with storytelling and calling attention to the artificial barrier we put up when we suspend our disbelief to enter the narrative. For example, he shoots inside the museum that houses the talismanic golden tree of life, offering a scene in which a marrying couple wishes to have their photo taken with the woman and Miller. We see in the background a bride putting eye drops in her eyes. Moments later, the woman and Miller move into the room that holds the artifact, and a weeping bride sits on the bench Miller vacated. The camera lingers on her, and we are made to wonder what her story is, but Kiarostami has already clued us that whether or not she is a real bride, her tears are fake.

I’ve heard this film described as a screwball comedy, but it could be considered as such only if you thought Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a screwball comedy as well. The marital quarrels, much more intense than those over Miller’s theories at the beginning of the film, are painful to watch and not my idea of an aphrodisiac. Why Miller agreed to play along is still a mystery to me. Some have suggested that the game was related to his theory about copies being as valuable as originals. There is something to this thinking, since we go to the movies in part to watch stories that can tell us about our real lives, but I don’t think it holds water as a motivation for the actions of these characters. Binoche is superb in the subtlety of her seduction, playing the game expertly while giving us a window into the woman’s feelings at critical moments. Shimell plays an annoyed husband quite well, but is less able to convey Miller’s feelings; I wasn’t really sure he was attracted to the woman and therefore wondered why he wanted to play the game. This reservation aside, Certified Copy is one of the most ingenious and thought-provoking romances you’re ever likely to see.

Certified Copy screenings are completely sold out. Check the CIFF website for added screenings or inclusion of the film in the Best of the Fest showings. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    4th/10/2010 to 10:06 pm

    “It’s ingenious, really. And, of course, his concerns with identity, most movingly rendered in Close-up, and reality versus fantasy, seen in such films as Taste of Cherry, are at the core of this film.”

    The schedule at the CIFF continues to be sizzling, and the addition of the latest film by one of contemporary cinema’s true auteurs is really a feather. It is no surprise at all that this great artist is always trying to dodge suppression, and his success at tapping into the international community (casting Binoche was a major coup) is a victory for freedom of artistic expression. You paint a fascinating picture of this relationship that takes center stage, and of the director’s technique, conveyed in the quoted passage above and in your report of the alternating cinema verite with storytelling.

    I’ll be there when it releases in the art hours. The advance praise is wonderful news!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/10/2010 to 10:11 pm

    Sam – People who have been slamming this film, I think, don’t like having their expectations ruptured by confusion. People whose opinion I really respect have nothing but praise for this film. It’s both simple and complex, and any fan of Kiarostami will nod knowingly and appreciatively at his characteristic concerns and flourishes. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it when you do get to see it.

  • Rod spoke:
    4th/10/2010 to 10:25 pm

    I’ve seen pathetically little of Kiarostami, and yet he still holds a deep place of affection in my mind for The Taste of Cherries, and I damn well hope I get to see this one.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/10/2010 to 8:49 am

    Taste of Cherry is a wonderful film, though again, one that has infuriated some viewers because of the ending. It’s like they just can’t accept that films are artifice or that they won’t know what happens next. I think that’s one of the reasons American trailers usually give the plot away – no surprises.

    So far, my favorite Kiarostami is The Wind Will Carry Us, the first of his films to deal with the annoyance of cellphones. :-)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    5th/10/2010 to 9:29 am

    I was just ready to jump in with THE WIND WILL CARRY US Marilyn, which (with A TASTE OF CHERRY) represents Kiarostami’s true greatness.

  • Jake Cole spoke:
    18th/10/2010 to 6:35 pm

    I finally got the chance to see this and was overwhelmed. I would address the questions over the ending, but I’m friends with Ryan Kelly on Facebook and when I went to talk to him about it I stumbled across your discussion with him and he of course said anything and everything I wanted to, but better.

    I’m a late convert to Kiarostami, but I was struck by how much of his usual themes and preoccupations were here. An unnamed woman, a pet peeve of cell phones, his questions of identity and, in broader terms, the fabric of cinema. I do have to laugh, though at his sardonic nature. After so many of his colleagues and critical fans asked him to return to making “movies” again, he comes out with Shirin and this, two films that have a clear cinematic flavor to them yet are either more minimalistic (Shirin) or more dense (this) than pretty much anything else he’s done. I’m also amused that he indeed made a “certified copy” of Euro art dramedy, and then just complicated the hell out of it to get at bigger ideas.

    I was most interested in the way he managed to let Binoche be so arrogant and confrontational at the start without painting her as a bitch, and how he deepened her character in a way that seemed genuine and probing, not merely a way to cover his bases from gender criticism. He gets to develop his fascinating gender threads openly, and he responds by making a character who is not defined by her sex even as her sex is of paramount importance in his continuing exploration of the border-less issues facing women everywhere. Considering he lives in such a restrictive society, I’m always amazed that he thinks beyond his own country where even brilliant, incisive directors like Mizoguchi focused on the specifics of one culture’s views.

    I don’t really comment here, because anything I have to say is either addressed in the review proper or by the far-more-qualified-than-I commenters, and I try to add something more than “Great job!” But I always take something away from your reviews. That was a great catch on the bride putting in eye drops. I don’t live anywhere near a festival so I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to see this, so I went back and watched the moment and couldn’t help but laugh when I saw it. I love how gently witty Kiarostami is even as everything he does builds toward the point he’s making.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/10/2010 to 6:54 pm

    Jake – Thank you for your well-considered comment, which I consider a “great job” in itself. I’ve long been fascinated with the sympathy that male directors in Iran have for women. We see women in Western countries brutalized, trivialized, and laughed at to such a huge degree that it’s amazing that such support exists in a place one might not expect it. In a way, the face of Iran is repression of women, but the reality is the opposite – another theme one could say Kiarostami explores in his art. I agree that he has created a certified copy of a Euro art love story – fraught, sexual, ambiguous – and turned it on its head in a very witty way.

    And better late than never, eh? Glad you had a chance to see it however you did. I hope you can see it on the big screen some time – it’s beautiful.

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