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By Richard Porton
The lukewarm critical reception accorded Abbas Kiarostami’s Cannes Competition entry, Certified Copy, can be attributed to several factors. Some critics appeared taken aback by Kiarostami’s recasting of some of the themes featured in sober, melancholy films such as Close-up (1990) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) in what doubtless appeared to be a more frivolous context. Other critics, such as Variety’s Rob Nelson, took little joy in noting that the film was “deliberately derivative,” and dutifully provided what became the requisite list of ostensible influences: Voyage to Italy (1954), Before Sunrise (1995), and In the Mood for Love (2000). And some Kiarostami devotees seemed mildly annoyed by the abandonment of his recent experimental forays for what superficially came off as a talky, and rather conventional, romantic comedy.
Invocations of Rossellini, Linklater, and Wong notwithstanding, I prefer to view Certified Copy as a languid screwball comedy—Kiarostami’s Bringing Up Baby (1938), so to speak. As in Hawks’ film, a free-spirited woman ensnares an uptight male intellectual. After an erudite lecture that considers the philosophical resonance of the “reproduction”—a genre usually treated with disdain by respectable art historians—James Miller (William Shimell) a British academic enjoying a sojourn in Tuscany, meets cute with a woman, at first saddled with a mischievous son, only credited as “She” (Juliette Binoche). What ensues is a hesitant romance in which the couple end up roaming the countryside and gradually find themselves impersonating a married couple; their union resembles a “certified copy”—also the name of the book that James is pontificating about at the film’s outset. A deceptively simple film, Kiarostami’s narrative sleight of hand results in uncertainty as to whether this “marriage” is a simulation or bogus—or, perhaps, one of the character’s private fantasies.
Kiarostami’s emphasis on “performativity” (or simply playacting, if you prefer) recalls David Huxley’s (Cary Grant) objection to daffy heiress Susan Vance’s (Katharine Hepburn) antics in Baby. At his most exasperated, Huxley claims that Susan is embellishing her often clumsy romantic stratagems with techniques borrowed from “old motion pictures.” One striking aspect of James Miller and his nameless paramour-in-training’s romance is its self-conscious indebtedness to (and tendency to subtly parody) a class of films in which a couple’s initial hostility towards each other signals eventual amorous bliss. Of course, although we’re primed to assume the film is sauntering, however hesitantly, towards a “happy ending,” its ambivalent climax undermines generic certainty. If, for Nelson, this reflexivity yields the negative conclusion that “Copy seems calculated to prove that narrative cinema has nothing more original to say,” it’s also possible to embrace Kiarostami’s approach for its ability to harness an already reflexive tradition (Stanley Cavell finds echoes of Shakespeare and Feydeau—whether unwitting or not—in Baby) to an idiosyncratic aesthetic and philosophical agenda.
Philosophy and aesthetics are in fact as much fused in the film as they are in James’ lecture, a digressive and supremely allusive bit of mock pedantry that sets the stage for the whimsy that follows. In his devil’s advocacy of the superiority of copies, even fakes, to “original” artworks, he casually refers to the “transfiguration of the commonplace”—the title of a study of the interrelationship of art and philosophy by philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto. A vulgar précis of Danto’s argument would include his fortuitous discovery of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes in the early ‘60s—an epiphany that led him to refine the differences between “artworks and everyday objects” and contemplate whether, at least in some cases, artworks themselves might be deemed works of philosophy.
The pertinence of these reflections to Kiarostami’s corpus, and the romantic shenanigans that follow, can be easily unraveled. For one thing, the interpenetration of everyday life and art has obviously been at the core of Kiarostami’s film practice from early in his career; focusing on the possibility of art’s status as a “transfiguration of the commonplace” is almost a cheerful self-tribute uttered by a surrogate mellowed by the Tuscan sun. And the subsequent faux-romance is nothing if not a “re-enactment” authored by the master of re-enactments. In addition to subtly virtuosic handheld cinematography (by Luca Bigazzi), the camerawork ensures that the boundaries between reality and fantasy are every bit as porous as the meldings of fiction and documentary in previous Kiarostami films. By forgoing standard shot/reverse shot permutations during some of the couple’s key encounters, and introducing multiple points of view, a slender narrative ruse becomes a way of destabilizing the rituals of romantic coupling.
The critical fretting at Cannes, however, reflected a certain amount of dismay that the tone was less earnest—and the stakes less urgent—than those featured in, say, Close-up. But bourgeois characters can possess as much dignity as Close-up’s impoverished protagonist and this slow-burning “romantic comedy” offers many tangible pleasures. A misbegotten meal in a countryside trattoria results in a tirade by James on the inanity of tasting wine before a full pour, a hollow ritual inasmuch as the waiter never expects the wine in question to be rejected. Another comic elucidation of the “performative” nature of daily life comes at a moment when Jean-Claude Carrière, in a cameo, assumes that the sullen James is married to Binoche and advises him, for the sake of the relationship, to at least simulate affection towards his wife.
According to Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, “what is not possible in real life” often “becomes possible” in Kiarostami’s films. In Certified Copy, sexuality, and the consummation of a bogus relationship initiated in slightly bad faith (or less judgmentally, from a desire to play the game of love and mimic its lexicon) is as much of a mystery to be deciphered as the interplay of mysticism and materialism in The Wind Will Carry Us. And, however tenuous the relationship between aesthetic theory and erotic machinations might be, it’s hard to deny that Binoche’s efforts to make herself alluring to her unresponsive prey (in a memorable scene, she applies lipstick in a bathroom as if going in for the kill, using the camera as a mirror) are as “real” as they’d be in a genuine marriage.
For a director renowned for his work with nonprofessionals, Kiarostami proves adept in tailoring his film to the requirements of a movie star while upturning a certain number of preconceptions. Before seeing the film, I thought there was something slightly odd, even leering, about Marie Darrieussecq’s focus on the importance of Binoche’s breasts in her brief commentary in the press book. Yet the film itself reveals that, despite snide remarks overheard from certain French critics who regarded the use of eventual Best Actress winner (and Jafar Panahi supporter) Binoche as a cynical commercial ploy, her fully sexualized presence in this film is a welcome respite from her icily chic persona in films such as Caché (2005).
Shimell’s performance as the slightly opaque James is more problematic. A British opera singer Kiarostami directed in a version of Cosi Fan Tutti, there is something undeniably wooden about him—although one gradually concludes that his woodenness serves Kiarostami’s purposes. He is, in effect, something of an anti-Cary Grant. Whereas it’s easy to bypass the surface dullness of David Huxley and distill Grant’s charm as he embodies him, Shimell, although not bad-looking, remains fairly charmless. This is perhaps a pivotal fact to the extent that he remains a tabula rasa that his pseudo-wife can employ for the projection of her fantasies.
As was the case with such disparate films as Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970), or Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Binoche-studded The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), when Certified Copy reaches a wider audience, Kiarostami will perhaps be faulted for straying out of his native terrain and seeming ill at ease in a foreign milieu. But even if his evocation of Tuscany is arguably a bit touristic, this late career summing-up is much more than a frivolous jeu d’esprit. In many respects, Certified Copy is every bit as elliptical and provocative as more transparently “experimental” films such as Five (2003) and Shirin (2008).