Fact and fiction make odd bedfellows in Abbas Kiarostami’s riff on the Euro art flick
Published: April 6, 2011
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Opens April 8 at the Charles Theater
“J-j-j-j-James,” she stammers, in what may be the most romantic use of an affected stutter ever set to celluloid. She’s wearing a spaghetti-strap sundress and lying across the bed, the late afternoon Tuscan sun barely illuminating her face. A bell tolls somewhere in the distance, sounding the hour—reminding James (opera singer William Shimell, making his film debut) of the train he is supposed to be catching. You don’t get to see what he decides to do, but because the woman is played by Juliette Binoche (who only gets more stunning as she ages) and because she’s inviting him to join her, in French, in a remote upstairs bedroom, in Italy, you have a pretty good idea what he’s going to do if he’s, you know, a breathing, sentient human being. And so this quiet, romantic scene conventionally concludes one of the most unconventional portraits of a couple in recent memory.
How she—Binoche’s character is simply called “Elle”—and James arrive there is what director Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is all about. Since the late 1980s this Iranian master has emerged as the most recognizable auteur working in the Middle East—that is, that his singular approach to filmmaking most familiarly conforms to Western notions of cinematic art. From Where Is the Friend’s Home and Close-Up on through Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami’s minimalist work has earned comparisons to the metaphysical lyricism of Robert Bresson, the patient relationship explorations of Eric Rohmer, the ambiguity of fact and fiction of 1960s cinematic modernism, the misdirection of Michelangelo Antonioni, and even the gritty but poetic verite of the Italian neorealists. For his first feature set in the West, Kiarostami has made a movie that is simultaneously a proper slice of European art-house cinema and an impish imitation of European art-house cinema. If all of that sounds like too much cinematic allusion, don’t worry: Certified Copy works just fine as a story of a man and a woman.
James is a British writer visiting Tuscany to promote his new book, which examines originality in art. James feels that, in the right circumstances, a copy can be valued as much as the real thing. A woman (Binoche) goes to James’ talk with her impetuous teenage son (Adrian Moore), and passes the local host of the lecture a note inviting James to stop by her store before he leaves. She sells antiquities, some real, some fake. They talk about his book, about her thoughts about his book, about the differences between what is real and what is fake. She offers to drive him to a village nearby to show him something she thinks he’d like to see, something that speaks to his book’s subject. En route, they talk some more—about art, about originality, about emotions, about fake emotions, about if it matters whether something is real or not.
That is, really, the entire plot. Don’t let all the chattiness fool you. Yes, there’s some discursive talk going on here, but Binoche might as well be talking about daffodils and unicorns given all the flirting her character does. Her performance earned her the Best Actress laurel at Cannes 2010, but a half-hour into Copy you may begin to wonder why. Her character comes across genuinely enough, a middle-aged single mother flirting with the handsome visiting author. She looks a bit over-interested at first, bordering on the flighty, but perhaps she’s merely nervous. Regardless, why isn’t this guy at least flattered by the attention? There’s an odd but knowing tension between them, and James acts like this sort of flirtation happens to him as often as the rest of us are asked for spare change.
During a stop at a café, however, something changes. The Italian proprietress mistakes James for Binoche’s character’s husband; she doesn’t correct her. Soon, the pair is not only acting like an estranged married couple, they’re acting like an estranged married couple that has played this game before.
From this moment on Copy dares you to figure out what the relationship between James and the woman really is, and has you questioning everything, including what you’ve already seen. Italian cinematographer Luca Bigazzi continues shooting these two attractive people in this luxuriant setting as if he was shooting vacation porn, and the movie’s editing rhythm and narrative pace remain at Kiarostami’s transfixing babbling-brook cadence. But the two people at Copy’s core change: What they talk about, how they respond to each other, and what they choose to say is no longer so casual.
And it’s during this latter half that Binoche works her subtle magic. Shimell primarily has to react to her, as she moves from English to French to Italian and back again, as she moves from flirtatious woman to overtaxed mother to spurned wife to hopeful ex-lover and on through many other guises. It’s an impressive performance that calls for the actress to create two dozen different character types while remaining the same character. And while the movie doesn’t entirely make narrative sense, come Certified Copy’s conclusion, Binoche’s grounded performance keeps the brain from following the story into the ether.
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