Looking glass love

Pub date March 17, 2011
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm Review

FILM Abbas Kiarostami’s beguiling new feature signals “relationship movie” with every cobblestone step, but it’s manifestly a film of ideas — one in which disillusionment is as much a formal concern as a dramatic one. Typical of Kiarostami’s dialogic narratives, Certified Copy is both the name of the film and an entity within the film: a book written against the ideal of originality in art by James Miller (William Shimell), an English pedant fond of dissembling. After a lecture in Tuscany, he meets an apparent admirer (Juliette Binoche) in her antique shop. She remains nameless (and is referred to in the credits as “She”) even as she steers them toward their day in the country, though he doesn’t seem to notice.

Their dialogues really begin in the car (a prominent setting in many of Kiarostami’s films). We watch them talk for several minutes in an unbroken two-shot, amiably distracted by the windshield’s scrolling reflection of the street. They gauge each other’s values using her sister as a test case — a woman who, according to the Binoche character, is the living embodiment of James’ book. Do their relative opinions of this off-screen cipher constitute characterization? Or are they themselves ciphers of the film’s recursive structure? Kiarostami makes us wonder.

They begin to act as if they were married midway through the film, though the switch is not so out of the blue: Kiarostami’s narrative has already turned a few figure-eights, and the role-playing initially comes of a café matron’s unremarkable misunderstanding. What’s strange — and pointedly wearying — is how little this shift alters their quarrelsome dynamic. Experience bears this much out: in intimate conversation, hypothetical premises are no safeguard from genuine emotions; to the contrary, we often invent them precisely to uncap recrimination. If Certified Copy‘s game resembles an acting exercise, that makes sense too given that actors like Binoche are garlanded for channeling authentic-seeming emotions in contrived scenarios. The mismatched casting of Shimell (an opera singer, blocky as an actor) and Binoche (overreaching) underlines this reflective aspect of the film, as does Kiarostami’s deliberate compositional strategies (marked especially by recessional staging and doublings within the frame).

We’re not exempt from the character’s misconceptions, starting with the fact that Kiarostami plainly wants us to mistake Certified Copy for another kind of movie. Tellingly, two rare POV shots in the film turn on misperception and illusion. In the first, James watches a couple in a piazza. The husband appears to be shouting at his wife, but when he turns the cell phone is revealed. (After a brief introduction, the stranger, played by Buñuel regular Jean-Claude Carrière, tells James in confidence he thinks that all She really needs is a tender gesture — succinctly expressing our own desires as an audience). Later, She looks out the window of an empty trattoria on an idyllic wedding scene. Kiarostami cuts back to her brightened face, giving a little object lesson in romantic projection. (Earlier the café matron warns her, “It’d be stupid of us to ruin our lives for an ideal.”)

Taking Kiarostami’s bait, several critics have already deemed Certified Copy derivative of many other elliptical romances. The strongest case for an “original” comes of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1954). Rossellini also makes use of his leads’ contrasting nationalities and acting styles; the car enclosure is similarly emphasized in both films; and Kiarostami cleverly plays on Ingrid Bergman’s emotionally resonant walks through museums and ruins throughout Certified Copy. Of course Voyage to Italy‘s premise is reversed — a married couple acts as if strangers — but the real difference is that while Rossellini’s masterpiece realizes first-person feelings in a third-person approach, Kiarostami stays in the shadow of doubt to the end.

CERTIFIED COPY opens Fri/18 in Bay Area theaters.