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Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: Certified Copy (2011)

* * * *

Director: Abbass Kiarostami
Starring: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell

If something is beautiful but a copy, does that diminish its value or is its value determined by what it inspires in the observer? This is the question at the heart of Abbass Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, a film of elusive construction and surprising comedy. This is a film that I've been anticipating seeing for months and it definitely wasn’t a letdown. This is a great film and, as always, Juliette Binoche gives an absolutely luminous performance.

Certified Copy begins with one premise and then gradually shifts, blurring the line between what is real and what is performance. It begins like this: James Miller (William Shimell), a British writer, has come to Tuscany to make an appearance to promote his book, “Certified Copy.” After the lecture he meets a French antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) and she offers to take him on a daytrip to the countryside. During their trip they discuss his book, wherein he argues that the question of whether something is an original or a copy is ultimately immaterial since even an original is itself a replication if it’s based on a real person or object. Though we’ve ostensibly just seen them meet, a degree of comfort and intimacy creeps into their interaction, making us question whether they are truly strangers.

When they stop for coffee, the cafe owner mistakes them for a husband and wife after witnessing them arguing. The woman (Binoche’s character is never named) decides to play along and then lets James in on the joke – or is it a joke? They continue on through the day as though they’re married and their frequent descents into argument certainly have the tenor of two people who have been in a relationship for an extended period of time. Certified Copy actually reminded me quite a bit of Blue Valentine in that both films feature couples arguing in a way that is at once totally horrible to watch and yet, at the same time, kind of funny because the way that these arguments begin and quickly escalate just seems so authentic.

As the day goes on, things get more emotionally fraught. Because Kiarostami moves so seamlessly from one premise (two strangers meet for the first time) to another (a long-married couple retraces steps they took when they got married), it’s difficult to know which story is genuine. Are they two people who have just met who are pretending to be a married couple, their arguments the result of each projecting onto the other the frustrations and pain of their real marriages, or are they a married couple who have decided to pretend to meet for the first time in an effort to recapture what they felt during their first flush of love? Kiarostami gives us ample evidence for both versions – if the two are truly a couple, why is it that the woman’s son doesn’t seem to know the writer? If they are truly strangers, how is it that they seem to know each other so well and know exactly what buttons to push? – and the question remains right up to the closing credits. This might sound a bit gimmicky on paper, but Kiarostami moves so expertly between the possibilities of this relationship that it never seems that way in practice; he has a very firm grasp on what he’s doing and makes it work from the first moment to the last.

One of the strengths of the film is the way that Kiarostami consistently underscores the question of “real” versus “copy.” The characters spend a great deal of time discussing the subject, of course, but there are numerous other ways that it’s brought into the mix. It’s in the way that the film opens at the lecture with the host introducing James in Italian and making a joke, followed by James beginning his talk in English and making what is essentially the same joke, only very slightly different. It’s in the way that later in the film the woman translates for James the words being spoken in Italian by a museum tour guide. It’s in the way that Kiarostami frequently shoots the characters reflected either in mirrors or windows – in one particularly striking shot Binoche is framed in both a mirror and in the rear-view mirror of a motorcycle parked in front of it. We’re consistently confronted with reproductions but it’s done with such subtlety that it never starts to feel like Kiarostami is hitting us over the head with it.

Because the movie consists pretty much entirely of two people talking for 106 minutes, casting is of vital importance. Binoche is always a safe bet and here she renders a very lived-in and vulnerable performance that can easily be called one of her best. Kiarostami took a chance with Shimell, an opera singer making his acting debut, who manages to hold his own opposite his more seasoned co-star. For much of the film he’s a steady presence acting as a counterbalance to Binoche’s much more emotional performance, but as the film gets closer to the end, the damn within the character suddenly breaks, allowing Shimell to show a deeper side to James. Binoche and Shimell make an effective pair and Kiarostami plays well to both their strengths. Certified Copy is a fascinating, wonderfully executed piece of work. From what I understand it’s still in very limited release, but if you have an opportunity to see it, I couldn’t recommend it more.

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