[Warning -- contains spoilers]
If there is a better film this year than Certified Copy, then I must rescind the statements I have made throughout 2010 of the abysmal quality of its cinematic offering. Thus far, the films that I have loved most I have embraced despite their flaws, falling in love with ambition (Inception), thematic richness (The Social Network) and plain ol' emotional attachment (Toy Story 3). Some of these works have at least flirted with the adjective "masterful," if for no other reason than some are the works of masters (The Ghost Writer, Shutter Island), but I had not yet seen a true masterpiece. Leave it to Abbas Kiarostami, the greatest living filmmaker in the world, to fill the gap.
While I rarely discuss any movie these days without going into spoilers (though I do try to save more elaborate talk for secondary reviews when it comes to new films), I must impress just how much of this film I will and must discuss in order to pen anything approaching a meaningful essay. I'm not talking about the questions over the film's real-or-fake narrative, which is as playful and exciting as it is wholly unimportant to gauging the film. I want everyone to go into this film with as little knowledge as possible, all the better to let its perfect blend of metafictional levity and insightful human drama hit with maximum impact.
At the halfway point of Certified Copy, the two main characters, an English art critic and writer (opera singer William Shimell, in his first movie role) and an unnamed French art dealer (I'll call her "Elle" like everyone else) enter an Italian café after debating the thesis of James' book. James steps outside for a moment, and the café owner remarks that they make a good couple; though the two just met, the woman does not correct the owner and launches into a discussion about the problems of keeping a marriage up after 15 years.
What sort of nonsense is this? Why would she do such a thing, and why would the man seemingly play along when he returns? In true Kiarostami fashion, these questions are indispensable to unlocking the central thrust of Certified Copy's intent yet pointless. There is a tendency for people to question which parts of a Kiarostami film are real and which are fake, which is a waste of time because it's all fiction. Granted, he blends documentary into the proceedings, but in doing so he makes reality fake. Of course, the flip side of that is that he makes falsity more real, and that dichotomy goes a long way toward building his status as the preeminent cinematic poet of his time.
Slyly, Kiarostami plants the idea that these two are a couple from the start. Binoche takes her teenage son to listen to James' lecture, but the spoiled brat complains of hunger and makes his mom leave almost immediately. She leaves her number with a friend to give to James, and when they meet, each comes off as slightly confrontational from the start. She attacks the premise of James' book, which stipulates copies of original artistic works have their own value based on the perspective of the copier. The discussion, framed, naturally, within a car traveling through the pastoral Italian countryside morphs from Elle asking for clarification on James' ideas to a debate about them to a more personal spat that frames the two as a stereotypical "old married couple."
Just as that thought enters your head, Kiarostami literalizes it by having Elle start the lie, which James bizarrely maintains. Suddenly, the aggressively flirtatious attitude between the two characters jumps into the advanced stages of a relationship, with Elle berating James for neglecting her and her son and him defending his absences as work-related. As they continue to walk around a quaint Tuscan village, the pair only get more savage, and both look increasingly immature. At an early dinner, Elle excuses herself and goes into the bathroom to plaster on lipstick and gaudy earrings, smoothing her face yet ironically robbing the 46-year-old of her ageless grace and beauty. She emerges as a child who got into mommy's accessories, and she might as well be going to a tea party with stuffed animals for the regression she displays. For his part, James turns into a petulant cad, flying off the handle for as innocuous a comment as Elle quietly saying she likes the wine he disparages.
Their bewildering behavior represents a stylistic departure for Kiarostami, as it enters into a melodrama far removed from the naturalism of his previous films. Rarely has Binoche been so animated, and she's one of the most effortlessly extroverted actresses on the planet. She's pushy, manipulative, happy, sad, quiet, loud, aggressive, defensive and various other adjectives to boot. She and Kiarostami have been friends since the '90s, and the director has been looking for the chance to put her in one of his movies for years. The wait was worth it: the idea that Kiarostami complicates the narrative just to make a cryptic puzzle have not addressed how openly and completely Binoche fits her performance to every twist and turn, clearly aware of what the director was trying to do.
For all her theatrics, however, Binoche continues a thread Kiarostami has been developing for years, that of the challenges facing women. Working in his native, restrictive Iran, Kiarostami bumped up against the lines of censorship with his depictions of women, but he never defined his female characters through anything as simplifying as region-specific oppression. When he examines the plight of women, he does not stop with the hijab and honor killings, he looks at broader emotional oppression by men. For James to so quickly defend leaving home for extended periods of time to leave Elle to raise their son by herself demonstrates how even the supposedly enlightened intellectual class can give career preference to men. After Shirin equalized Binoche with the cast of Iranian women and presented a universal male patriarchy as an enduring problem, Certified Copy digs deeper into the emotional tumult of not being openly oppressed or discriminated against but subtly manipulated for years, and the range of Binoche's expression reflects how complex the reactions to such confusing reduction can be.
At the same time, Kiarostami scores a coup with the film by setting it from the woman's perspective. The nosy, aggressive questions Elle's son prods his mother with at the start can obviously be explained by Elle's own confrontational nature. But Kiarostami is not blaming the mother for corrupting the son so much as illustrating the issues that can arise from a single parent situation, a subject that courts its own controversy until Elle tearfully speaks of how hard it is to play both roles to raise a child. Besides, for all the kid's distracted noodling with a cell phone, he's quite perceptive, and he realizes as he looks at his mom during the opening lecture that she is planning to seduce James. Her actions are manipulative, to be sure, but never cruel, and the director finds a way to deliberately pace what we know about the character without making her a bitch until the last 10 minutes. I've seen so many examples of this in contemporary cinema that I'm at a loss to explain just how Kiarostami brushes against the traps of Western filmmaking and casually inverts and subverts them. Here is a movie that answers the male gaze with the female gaze, replacing sexual lust with conflicting romantic emotions that seem to confuse more male critics than female ones because we're not used to this level of sophistication when thinking about an object of desire.
Binoche's performance is insightful and believable, but it also plays on the artifice of cinema. Shimell, on the other hand, is so stiff and unaccustomed to dramatic acting that he also points out the falsity of it all. Kiarostami slyly doesn't use Shimell's singing talents, nor even the melodramatic chops he no doubt he picked up performing opera. That would be too obvious. Instead, Kiarostami uses Shimell the way he does any nonprofessional actor, to get a more natural performance. Shimell plays the straight man off Binoche's complex emotional range, and even his broader moments of anger look simplistic compared to Binoche. This can partly be explained as the natural result of a person out of his element working alongside one of the world's greatest actresses giving one of her best performances, but it's also all part of the plan. If Binoche examines Kiarostami's divide between reality and fiction by keenly understanding what the director intended in nearly every shot, Shimell does so by being as lost as we are. If Binoche doesn't look like she's acting even while doing Sirkian cartwheels, Shimell makes it blindingly obvious, and that, ultimately, is the clue that decides whether the two are a real couple.
Yes, it's all a fake, as is revealed vaguely but unmistakably at the end. The ending snaps all the pieces into place, not of the film itself but of the clues that allow one to unlock its meaning. The question people should ask of the film is not whether Elle and James are for real, it's who was right about the artistic merits of James' thesis. The ending lets us understand that Elle planned her game to test James' contention that copies have their own worth, but also to get out her frustrations over being abandoned. When the game first begins in earnest, Elle jokes with the café owner that James does not speak another language. Yet when Elle gets so emotional later that she slips into French, and James responds in kind. By altering his language, James fits better as the copy of Elle's ex-husband, and his stiff movements are the sight of an unprofessional actor acting as a character who in turn acts for an audience of one.
By the end, the positions of the characters have reversed. In projecting all her hangups onto the copy, Elle falls in love again and desperately wants to rekindle her old relationship with this new copy. She has made James into a clone of her husband, but she and James have also made this replication different enough that she can fall in love with the man she hates. But James can see the emotional distress in her, and while he clearly feels tempted by Elle's seduction -- we are talking about Juliette Binoche here -- he cannot bring himself to torment her with a specter of past love. Where she at last believes in copies carrying their own emotional weight, James, who says at the beginning that he wrote his book to convince himself of his own idea, realizes that he cannot be someone else's copy without being their projection, not his own. Ironically, by rejecting his premise at last, he commits the final act necessary to make him a perfect copy of the ex-husband: he leaves Elle.
This driving conflict fits squarely within Kiarostami's canon, built upon the dividing line between reality and fiction. What is most amusing about Certified Copy is the way that he uses his first European film and the freedom it entails to make a movie that only looks different from his previous, restricted movies in the clothes that Binoche can wear. Marilyn Ferdinand, one of the best movie bloggers around, noted something I had to go back and check: when the two characters visit a church in Lucignano where loving young couples pledge eternal love on a gilded tree branch -- one of Kiarostami's more devilish touches, given the embittered duo he focuses upon -- a bride in the background squirts eye drops in her eyes. When James goes inside and the camera cuts back to the bench he was sitting on, that bride sits there now with tears rolling down her cheeks, but we know they're fake. It's a light touch, as nearly all touches in a Kiarostami film are, but it broadens the scope of his inquiry on fakes, not letting the entire story rest on the fractured perspective of a troubled woman. Even the content rearrange themselves to make copies of what they think they should be, the bride genuinely happy but wanting to seem happier to fit to the image of the wife who cannot contain her joy.
Actors will pick apart Certified Copy for years, because it says more about the profession than any film made in at least a decade. The caliber of Binoche's performance will certainly be studied, but more importantly, the film has a great deal to say about the profession. Actors play copies of people, either of real figures or fictional characters who are composites of real people (or of previous fictional characters themselves based on real people). But they are also human themselves. They process and perceive the fiction, thus aligning them with the audience, who become background characters, trying to figure out this couple along with everyone else. The most amazing aspect of Binoche's performance is not how well she follows Kiarostami's emotional and artistic themes but the manner in which she allows herself to lose the thread at the end as Elle's grand scheme falls apart when she gets lost in her own labyrinth. The bravest and most compelling thing she can do is lose track of where she's supposed to be at the exact right time.
"Art is not an easy subject to write about," James says in his opening lecture. "There are no fixed points of reference, no immutable truths to fall back on." Certified Copy is itself a sterling replication of the European, romantic art film, drawing on Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy and Richard Linklater's Euro-centric Before Sunrise. He even throws in a bit of Bergman's Persona into the mixture. In the process, however, he proves James' thesis by adding his own indelible spin on it. Using his usual shot/reverse shot structure, Kiarostami gently reconfigures the perspective of the film, starting with James speaking before cutting to Binoche arriving, then to the son's view as he watches his mom whispering conspiratorially to her friend. Yet when James arrives, the POV clearly shifts to Elle as she begins molding her image of James. Even European films, generally the ones with the best roles for women, are masculine, and Kiarostami makes a film some have misread as a sellout, festival-friendly movie into a more feminist movie than nearly all European romances of similar stripes. It's a bold response to those who say there are no more ideas for movies, that all movies are just rip-offs of something else: as long as someone brings something new to the table, it's valid and unique, regardless of whether it's "original."
And just as it is a copy of European films that differs slightly until everything adds up to a unique vision, so too is Certified Copy a typical Kiarostami film that is in no way typical. Shot on digital but printed on 35mm, the film blends the methods of capturing film, literalizing the artistic dichotomies the director's work embodies. Once again, the director uses a return to cinema to poke fun at those who wanted him to go back to making features instead of experimental ventures. But the biggest breakthrough, even for a director as emotionally attuned as Kiarostami, is the heightened humanity. After making so many films about people in cars, the world visible only as it rolls over a windshield vertically as if we're seeing film run through a projector, Kiarostami inserts a little joke to his knowing fans when the two get out of the car and join the world, making their story so much harder to untangle. But that's because he's finally inserting his characters into a larger story, a clear reflection of his own steps into a larger world by making films outside of Iran (he's already scheduled to make another film with Binoche). His films have never been insular, but that have been personal. Here, he realizes how much he can expand while still retaining the individuality of his emotional explorations. He already condensed the world's complexity into the sandy Iranian countryside; now, he throws away the microcosm and works within the real thing. And only Kiarostami could make such a transition and still give off the impression that the world cannot contain all that he has to say about it. Shirin dealt with the contrast of collective and individual reaction to film in minimalist terms, and here he explodes them in a narrative as complex, dubious, rewarding and frustrating as life itself.
Certified Copy probes at the emotions of a relationship, the pain of loss and the idea that there might only be one person out there for us. The idea of a soulmate is so romantic, but if you ultimately separate, doesn't the possibility exist not that the right person is out there, but that you couldn't even make things work with your fated partner? That is an excruciating thought, and one Kiarostami dispels only after he drains Binoche; only when we've all cried it out can we move on and realize that the most useless and unhelpful of breakup maxims is actually true: plenty of other fish in the sea. Church bells ring at the end, possibly funereal as James leaves. But the peals also emit a hopeful tone; it's the start of a new day, and perhaps another couple is getting married. I've heard some compare Certified Copy to the screwball comedies of old, The Philadelphia Story and so on. If there are any screwball antics here, they exist solely on the meta level as Kiarostami messes with narrative coherence and fulfills the wishes of his critics as he subverts them. But the comedy of the film is quiet, as is the melancholy, and when it all comes together in the final moments, Certified Copy stands as the latest proof that Abbas Kiarostami has no equal, and whatever else may be said about these sad times, we are lucky to be alive in an age where a master continues to work.