' ' Cinema Romantico: Certified Copy

Monday, June 25, 2012

Certified Copy

Once upon a time I was at a wedding. I met this girl. I really, really dug her. After the reception a bunch of us carried the frivolity back to a bar and she and I were sitting together – like, close together – and we were talking and it was awesome and I caught myself thinking at one point, “You know, anyone here who doesn’t know us looks at us would probably think we were married. Well, maybe not married, but in that first throes of a relationship when everything is joyful and you’re under the misguided impression it’s going to be joyful forever.” But then I thought, “Well, maybe they wouldn’t think that. Maybe they’d just think, Oh, those are two drunken idiots who hooked up at a wedding.” Either/Or when in reality we were neither. Perception from person to person can vary so wildly and swing so quickly. It reminds me of those miraculous lines from Mark Twain’s Adam & Eve Diary: “Been examining the great waterfall. The new creature calls it Niagara Falls. Why, I do not know. Says it LOOKS like Niagara Falls. That is not a reason, it is mere waywardness and imbecility.”

A French woman (Juliette Binoche) and an English author, James Miller (William Shimell), who have only met but a couple hours ago are in a pictueresque coffee shop in the scenic Italian countryside. He gets a phone call and steps outside to take it. The woman working the counter compliments Binoche on her choice of a husband because she can tell by the kindly and patient way he treats her that he is a good spouse. They are, of course, not actually married. But Binoche never corrects the woman. And she discusses this James Miller as if they have been married for 15 years and have a child (which she – herself – does). So, this woman in the coffee shop closes up and goes home and lives the rest of her life thinking that nice woman and that nice man were married. That is her perception specifically because Binoche never attempts to alter that perception. And does Binoche possibly buy into that perception herself?

“Certified Copy”, the latest film from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, is, as the title implies, a film that asks – often overtly – if a copy, if a reproduced piece of art is as valuable and/or authentic as the original piece of art itself. Is a $6 12x18 rolled-up recreation of Emmanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing The Delaware” as valuable as the original canvas that hangs in The Met? Yet, even more so, and even more so in retrospect, as you go over the words and the images of “Certified Copy” again and again, which you cannot help but do, you realize that it’s less about art than it is about the philosophical debate of epistemology. That is, just what the hell are we seeing?

The film opens at Miller’s reading of his latest book, ahem, “Certified Copy.” Binoche’s Woman – who remains nameless throughout – attends with her Beatle-haired 11 year old son whose distractedness at the whole event leads them to light out early, though not before Binoche gives her phone number to Miller’s editor with instructions to call her. He does and they meet and at this prodding they leave the town of Tuscany behind and light out by car for the countryside, chatting primarily about the relationship between copies and originals which weaves in and out of discourse on Binoche’s frustration with her family life and whether life itself is better if it is one of decided simplicity as opposed to one bound to an oppressive go-getter attitude. Then they go to the coffee shop and that is when something most unexpected occurs.

It’s not a twist in the Shyamalan sense of the word but if you don’t wish to know the sudden left turn “Certified Copy” takes then I suggest you read no further. Which is to say that as Binoche and Miller continue walking and talking after their coffee break it quickly dawns on us that their manner of speaking has morphed into that of a couple married for 15 years. And this is because as near we can tell that is precisely what has happened. Or is that what they were all along? Were they play-acting leading up to this marital bickering? Or did they decide to start play-acting while they were in the coffee shop and they aren’t really married at all? To quote “Kill Bill’s” Earl McGraw: “Good gravy marie.”

There are echoes of other films all over the place – like, say, “Before Sunrise/Before Sunset”, two films in which two people strolled scenic European locales and talked. Heck, just like “Before Sunset” this film opens at a book reading and establishes the Looming Deadline Device. (Miller has to be back to catch a train at 9.) Other critics have compared it to Rossellini’s “Journey To Italy.” Perhaps it's an art house "When In Rome"? But do you know what film popped into my mind most? David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” Remember when Bill Pullman is arrested and locked up and the next morning the cops go to the jail cell only to discover Bill Pullman has become……Balthazar Getty? That’s what I thought of when this woman and this man left the coffee shop as a married couple. What’s happening? More crucially, HOW is this happening? Who knows? Who cares? We’re like Gil Pender in “Midnight In Paris”, baby. Don’t ask HOW, just go along for the ride.

Of course, the ride needs to be exciting on its own terms. It is. Acting goes a long way when there is essentially only two of you and the leads both deliver performances worthy of superlatives, particularly Ms. Binoche. From moment to moment she effortlessly shifts from enchanting to frustrated and convincingly portrays a person often frazzled by the fact her mind seems to be several places at once. Shimell meanwhile is playing two different people within the same part – observant and courteous in the first one, wearied and insulting in the next. And though the story is ready-made for confusion and lack of an arc, Kiarostami cleverly builds the film through the dialogue. The dialogue is the narrative because everything said in the first half sets up and carries us through to the second half. Though despite all that we are still left at the end with questions as to just what we are seeing. The answer?

That's up to you.


Lasso The Movies said...

I just recently saw this movie and was suck into the movie more and more as it went along. The two actors were brilliant and I thought the direction flowed nicely. I had never seen any of his previous work, but now look forward to it. Thanks for your post, its good to read someone else's thoughts.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you! I've had several people recommend "Taste of Cherry" to me - another film by the same director - and, thus, I plan on checking that out sometime soon.

Andrew K. said...

My only complaint is I wish this was longer.

Binoche is of course wonderful here, but the more I think on it, the more I feel that in his debut Shimmell has been given the short end of the stick playing a less eclectic, but just as difficult character and doing wonders with it. Glad to see you mention him.

Nick Prigge said...

Wait, you mean you wish the movie was longer? Or the review?

That was Shimmell's debut? I did not know that. Wow, even more impressive. Because yeah, as great as Binoche was, she has the one character to play and he has to play two while still simultaneously sort of being himself.

Andrew K. said...

The review, of course, what can I say - I'm a bottomless pit when it comes to reading. Also, yup, Shimmell is/was an opera singer. He's never been in front of the camera before.