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Now and Then: The False Promise of Kiarostami's 'Certified Copy'

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! May 22, 2012 at 7:17AM

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's 2010 Cannes entry "Certified Copy," which won Juliette Binoche the festival's Best Actress prize, is out today on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection. Given that he debuted his latest effort on the Croisette this week, the timing is felicitous. I wish I could say the same about the movie.
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Juliette Binoche in "Certified Copy"
Juliette Binoche in "Certified Copy"

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's 2010 Cannes entry "Certified Copy," which won Juliette Binoche the festival's Best Actress prize, is out today on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection. Given that he debuted his latest effort on the Croisette this week, the timing is felicitous. I wish I could say the same about the movie.

It opens innocuously enough — British writer James Miller (opera singer William Shimell) is in Tuscany to give a lecture on his latest book, "Certified Copy," an examination of falsehood and authenticity in the reproduction of art. Disruptions arise: a woman (Binoche) and her son come late, leave early, and spend the time in between paying barely any attention; Miller's phone rings, and he stops his talk to answer it. There's a languid, mysterious quality to the scene that's terribly seductive, Kiarostami's unhurried aesthetic coupling nicely with Shimell's soothing, sonorous voice. By the time Binoche emerges into the cobbled streets of the village to the tolling of church bells, it's clear that the director has once again fashioned a picture with the kind of painterly self-possession for which he's deservedly renowned.

Unfortunately, the bells also sound the film's death knell. As the story unfolds, it becomes less seduction than seminar, culminating in an abrasive dinner table conversation that almost had me reaching, like the kid in the lecture, for a diversion. What's so disappointing is that all the pieces are there: intellectual rigor, terrific performances, formal beauty. In one scene, as Binoche and Shimell speed through the village streets, Kiarostami, that auteur of the automobile, constructs what amounts to a miles-long tracking shot, the awnings and stones of the streetscape reflected in the windshield. Rather than shoot their conversations in profile, he opts for direct address and then pieces it all together in the cutting room, leaving us to witness every frisson of pain in Binoche's face, to look into her searching, watery eyes.

Yet for all the intricate compositions and careful motifs (reflections, brides) "Certified Copy" comes off as a kind of reproduction — an anti-romance, "Before Sunset" in reverse. "You take an ordinary object, you put it in a museum, and you change people's perception of it," Shimell's character says of Warhol, and I fear that the imprimaturs of Cannes and Criterion have done the same here. It's not a bad movie but an ordinary one, a drama about closeness that remains ever at arms length.

Fittingly, for a movie that refers repeatedly to the Mona Lisa, the experience of watching it reminded me of the endless hallway of devotional art that you must traverse in the Louvre before arriving at Da Vinci's famed painting: a lot of pretty pictures and then a disappointing little thing at the end, untouchable behind the glass.

This article is related to: Now and Then, Reviews, Festivals, Cannes, Directors, Awards, DVDs


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.