There’s an anecdote towards the end of Orson Welles’ teasing docu-montage F For Fake involving Pablo Picasso in which the artist, confronted by a number of sketches purported to be his own, dismisses each as a fake. Of the final two, the collector showing him the sketches says “…but Pablo, these two are most definitely yours, you drew them in front of me”, to which Picasso replies “Yes, but I’m as capable of drawing a fake Picasso as anybody else.”
Is the value of a work of art determined by it’s authenticity? Does a copy or a fake only hold personal and cultural significance when it’s origins are unknown, when it’s believed to be an original? Or is representation of a truth enough to validate it in it’s own right? These are just some of the questions posed in Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s first European feature, Certified Copy.
Kiarostami’s recent features, from Ten onwards, have eschewed more conventional narrative and cinematic devices in favour of more a more static point of view (culminating in almost total stasis with 2008’s Shirin) and often non-diegetic dialogue, focussing more on the listener than the speaker. A lot of these familiar devices appear in his new film; conversations over restaurant tables take place off-screen as we watch reaction rather than action, passing scenery is beautifully inverted through windscreen reflections, and Luca Bigazzi’s photography offers more languid movement than the director’s last few films put together.
Juliette Binoche, whose character is never referred to by name, is intrigued by author James Miller’s (William Shimell) new book on the validity of copies versus originals, enough to offer to take him on an afternoon trip into the Tuscan countryside to discuss it further. Her young son believes she just fancies him, particularly as she’s quick to dismiss the book and it’s ideas. What begins as a playful flirtation on the book’s themes soon becomes mirrored in their relationship to each other when a café owner mistakes them for a married couple. ‘She’ doesn’t correct her, and plays along with the presumption immediately, encouraging Miller to continue this Pinter-esque role play long after they’ve left the café.
Is this ‘copy’ of a fifteen year marriage a sufficient cipher for her to explore her true feelings on her own (failed?) marriage? And why is Miller so unquestioningly willing to comply?
Unfortunately these questions are never answered and there are many others that frustratingly aren’t even raised. Certified Copy is ultimately a rather odd film. It has an intellectual curiosity for sure, but an emotional naivety that asks us to take a little too much on face value. The role play element of the second half of the film (reminiscent of Pinter’s The Lover) is never remarked upon or acknowledged, and particularly from Miller’s side we’re never sure how much is ‘in character’. A lot of this is down to Shimell’s not being an actor (he’s a respected opera singer who worked with Kiarostami on his production of Cosi Fan Tutte) something brought, at times painfully, to light during his sparring with Binoche, who won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance. A lot though is down to the script, which at times feels as though it was translated back and forth between Iranian and the three spoken languages we hear.
The themes of the film, however, are certainly intriguing and also offer a deconstructed look at cinema itself. All actors can do is ‘copy’ real-life relationships when they’re acting, watching a film is after all an entirely artificial experience, but if we engage emotionally as an audience, surely that’s as authentic an experience as any other – we’re not faking what we feel in response to what we see. But how far are we willing to trick ourselves into emotional engagement? If the characters on screen as well as the actors playing them are ‘faking’ their relationship, can we as an audience still connect, or is that a remove from reality too far?
Reminiscent of Rossellini’s wonderful Journey To Italy, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and even Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer’s films with it’s impassioned discussions on art and emotional philosophy, Certified Copy is an intriguing but frustratingly flawed film that nevertheless, for myself anyway, offers a more interesting direction for Kiarostami – away from the art gallery and back into the cinema.