Screening Log #13: Certified Copy (2011)

Certified Copy PosterWritten and Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Starring Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel





Strange that my favourite film from last year should only now, in the slow-blooming air of Spring 2011,  find its way into my eyes and mind, but such are the vagaries and mysteries of international film distribution. But here we are and I am very happy to have finally seen Abbas Kiarostami‘s newest film. The film ostensibly presents itself as a simply framed narrative following two people, an author James Miller (William Shimmel), and an antique dealer, Elle (Juliette Binoche) in rural Tuscany as they spend a day together; after an incident at a coffee shop where the woman working there assumes the pair are married, James and Elle continue throughout the day playing a game wherein they pretend to be husband and wife. Or are they actually married and only playing at being strangers?

The film itself, however, is purposefully vague about whether these two strangers are strangers or, rather, estranged. The two affect the dialogue of two people who have known one another intimately, accrued a deep and sometimes painful history together, with issues of distance and disaffection growing. They are either dedicated to their game and skillful actors and improvisers, or something more complex is transpiring. Even in the film credits Elle’s surname is withheld, denying even the cheekiest audience member a closing gesture of proof to substantiate either belief. Either scenario is equally believable and equally untenable.

A Story Sound FamiliarThe key to solving this ambiguity, to my mind, lies not in the narrative details but rather in the subject of James’ book, the book shares a title with the film, which investigates the idea of priority and prestige given to an “original” artistic work over its copies. His argument is that the copies are equally as valid as the original, that the idea of something being “original” is specious; the original beauty of Mona Lisa, he argues, is not in the painting, but rather the subject of the painting, that the mysteriously famous smile may have not even been the model’s, but taken from elsewhere in the life of da Vinci. By regarding the marital ambiguity presented in the film from the perspective of James it becomes rather moot whether or not the marriage is a real marriage or simply a facade; in either case the experience of marriage is equally valid and equally powerful and important.

Kiarostami’s script employs multiple pairs of married couples to foil his depiction of James and Elle’s (non)relationship. The pair comes across a young couple on their wedding day, a couple a little older than themselves and a very elderly couple as well. The encounters with each of these other married couples simultaneously reinforces the “married” relationship between James and Elle while informing the audience’s – and, almost certainly the character’s own – view of the primacy of their relationship. Here, again, the idea of originality or authenticity is subtly reiterated. The act of marriage is “copied” by millions of couples each year, but every marriage is not the first or original, but is equally valuable and meaningful to its participants; the elderly couple’s marriage may pre-date that of the young couple but does in no way diminish their exuberant joy or what they mean to one another.

A Real CopyThe film also lingers over the idea of translation as an act of replication, as an unoriginal gesture – though in its own terms, neither of these terms is necessarily pejorative. Miller’s book has been translated by a friend and is met with more open arms in Italy than in his native England. And, later in a wonderful scene, when Elle brings James to an original copy the audience is given sub-titled text for a museum worker speaking about the piece at the same time as Elle translates what he is saying to James, whose Italian is limited, the distance between translation is visually and aurally translated and conveyed. In each case of translation what is being said is being copied into another linguistic medium, each a valuable and original speech act, but twinned in meaning and beauty.

Thematically, this film carries my mind back to Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997) insofar as the final gesture of that film, following an emotional journey is to pull back and reveal the camera crew, filming the movie. There he explicitly reveals the artifice, or “copied”, nature of the film medium in a manner that can be read into Certified Copy‘s far more subtle treatment. Indeed, this film gracefully embeds these thematic and philosophical lines of inquiry within its narrative in unobtrusive and organic ways. Binoche and Shimmel both give true performances full of life and emotion and weight, expertly modulating themselves to give equal weight to either side of belief as to whether or not their characters are really married or not. It would be easy to overplay either role and lead the audience farther to one side of the fence, but for their parts the actors are not giving any clues.

I've Often Relied on the Kindness of StrangersPhilosophically rich beyond the simple and broad outlines of its plot, crafted with a care and attention that allow it to contain the deeper sounding resonances and interrogations, Certified Copy emerges as my favourite film of last year and an interesting emotional and very personal counter-point to The Social Network and its cursory investigation of the relationship between the personas cultivated online and how they may “copy” those in real life.

One Response to “Screening Log #13: Certified Copy (2011)”
  1. Jandy Stone says:

    I had pretty much the same reaction and interpretation to the film as you – the way Kiarostami weaves the theme of original and copy into the concept of marriage is fantastic, and unexpected. We usually separate life from art, and wouldn’t think to apply an artistic concept like James’ concept of copie conforme to something like marriage. I really liked you point about translation also being part of the multiplicity of copies in the film – I loved that scene in the art gallery.

    Several of the people in the theatre I was in didn’t get it, though, which I found interesting – there were at least a couple of “but what was the point” comments. Seems revealing to me not only that some people want a pithy takeaway or something, but that they seemed to want to know whether the marriage was real or not. But even if it’s real in the film, it isn’t REAL. I think Kiarostami is making a statement about film, too – just like pictorial art, it’s always a copy. In one way, it doesn’t matter if their marriage is real in the film, because the film isn’t real either.

    It’s been a long while since I’ve had so many thoughts roiling around in my head after seeing a film. It feels good.

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