Say the name Abbas Kiarostami in the presence of those who know his work and you are, more often than not, invoking a set of aesthetic standards and practices that have been the director’s trademark for years; long sequences set inside of a car as it moves through the landscape, absurd, almost unknowable circumstances that are only revealed in the final moments of the film, patient exteriors, filmed in long, unmoving shots that describe the travails of characters and objects as they move through the world, and doubling, the idea that characters and their relationships exist as replicas of other, authentic relationships elsewhere in their own lives. Kiarostami’s films each contain a powerful narrative logic that is built upon a journey to enlightenment of one kind or another; the trip is what matters, not the whys or wherefores, and it is in articulating the minutia, the process of arriving at his revelations, that allow Kiarostami’s films to shine. He has built a dedicated following over the years (I count myself among the converted), earned by bending cinematic time to his will, by showing the miracles hidden within the epiphanies that come from just getting to where you're going.
So, it comes as a bit of a shock to watch Certified Copy, Kiarostami’s engaging if problematic foray into the absurd, a territory that recalls the work of Samuel Beckett as much as it does any of Kiarostami’s previous work. Or maybe that’s overstating it, because there are generous portions of Kiarostami’s world view on display in the story of a French woman (Juliette Binoche, in one of her best performances), an antique dealer living in and working in Tuscany and specializing in copies of original art works, who spends a day with an English writer named James Miller (played with pompous bluster by opera singer William Shimell) whose recent book Certified Copy explores the nature and importance of authenticity in the value of works of art. The films starts with the woman (she is never given a name) attending Miller’s lecture, only to find herself pulled away by her teenage son, who confronts her about her crush on Miller and teases her, in a small clue to the film’s possible meaning, as to why she was afraid to mention his surname to the writer.
La Binoche: Certified Copy
The next day, Miller meets her at her shop and, somewhat disinterested in her collection of art, agrees to visit the small town of Lucignano with her; the pair climb into her car and we make the drive with them (in classic Kiarostami fashion), which finally opens up the film to the question at its heart; what is this relationship between the pair all about? Soon, after a visit to a famous painting (which was once believed to be authentic and now is understood to be a copy) and once again facing Miller’s general disinterest in what is ostensibly the subject of his work, the couple find themselves in an Italian café; when Miller leaves to take a phone call, she has a long conversation with the female proprietor of the café about the nature of married life, which Binoche plays brilliantly, pretending to be married to Miller while throwing the audience into wild confusion. Are we watching a married couple who pretend to be strangers or are we viewing strangers who, for whatever reason, have decided to pretend to be married? As the couple pulls the façade up and down, the audience is placed in the middle of an absurd situation, trying to find a handle on this relationship as it unspools before us, never learning the truth about the couple’s status, left only with their sadness and longing, never knowing which emotions are real.
The film fits squarely in the European absurdist tradition (you could easily see Jacques Rivette hitting this story out of the park in twice the time) that reminded me of the early work of Samuel Beckett; the film echoes Beckett's desire to illuminate human suffering in a world that we can never really understand. It is the inscrutable nature of the couple in Certified Copy, especially Binoche’s character and her great performance, that provide the intellectual fireworks here, but as the film unspooled, I found myself taking issue with both the imbalance of the relationship (Miller is never presented in a remotely sympathetic light) and the imbalance of performance, where Shimell can’t seem to handle the complexity and speed of Bincohe’s work. Additionally, the central conflict between the characters becomes more and more monotonous, never relieved nor resolved, and often struggles to escalate against the thin construction of the conceit. It is not until the couple visit a hotel room that was, she says, the room where they stayed on their honeymoon, that the elegiac nature of their encounter becomes fully realized. We arrive at something tangible, only to have the film abruptly end.
There is so much to admire about the movie, from Binoche’s killer work in the leading role (she is able to deploy the full breadth of her charm and the depth of her sadness) to the careful, patient construction of the couple’s relationship as it spirals toward an emotionally revelatory intimacy, but Shimell’s haughty performance deprives Miller of the depth of character that might allow us to understand the woman’s attraction to and love for him and, without the emotional investment in the Miller character, the film ends up being stripped of its power; what should be moving exchanges between two damaged souls comes off as almost comic under the weight of Miller’s pomposity. If this is a "copy" of a love story, if the characters are meant to be participating in a ritual that mirrors what either is or is not their real relationship with one another, the emotional resonance of that situation feels flat whenever the camera falls away from Binoche. This flaw proved fatal for me; with the expanding depth and complexity of the relationship constantly undermined, the conceit itself began to wear thin and, without a meaningful change in the tone and the delivery of information in the narrative, Certified Copy began to suffer, to feel, well, as if the weight of its ideas was more than the film could bear. It is well worth seeing, and a film I could recommend without hesitation for fans of the director, but if it ends up feeling a minor addition to Kiarostami’s body of work, it is only a reminder that sometimes, the mundane portions of the journey can ultimately lead to revelation. Let’s hope it is on the way.