Monday, April 25, 2011
Reality Bites: Certified Copy
Early in Certified Copy, one of the main characters, an author who has just published an extended essay on art authenticity, describes watching a boy looking at the statue of David. Actually, to be more precise, the author describes a boy looking at a statue of David. The boy is in the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, Italy, so the statue in front of the boy is only a replica of the “real” thing. The boy doesn’t know this, of course. He regards the statue with no concern for the statue’s pedigree. Instead, he regards it as artistic depiction alone, and he is awestruck. Is the boy wrong to feel that way? The author would argue he isn’t, suggesting that the search for originality places value on lineage instead of artistry. But if the boy’s reaction to the David replica serves as a parable about the purity of appreciating art without prejudice, it’s also something of a cautionary tale. Because when the boy looks upon the replica in amazement he makes the same mistake that so many of us make when we fall in love with anything: he regards the beauty in front of him without any notion of context. Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is about art and relationships, but mostly it’s about the elusiveness of truth and the imperfection of perception.
At least, I think that’s what it’s about. For a film that’s little more than two characters walking and talking, often very explicitly, about how they feel, Certified Copy is a remarkably challenging film to decode. (Major spoilers ahead throughout.) When the film begins, the characters played by William Shimell and Juliette Binoche appear to be perfect strangers – he’s the author and she’s an antiques dealer and single mom who appears to have a crush on him – but by the end of the film it’s suggested that these characters have been married for 15 years. Is this a ruse, a game? Are this man and woman play-acting, either pretending not to know one another at the start or pretending to be married later on? Perhaps, but I doubt it. The duo’s early getting-to-know-you banter is too mundane and their eventual marital spats are too intimate for this to be role-playing. The only rational explanation that I can come up with is to accept that the film’s halves are as irrational as they appear: the man and woman do start their day together as complete strangers and they do end the day as (quasi-estranged?) husband and wife. This impossible shift doesn’t mean that the characters are crazy or that the film is disingenuous. Rather, Kiarostami is trading narrative cohesion for audience manipulation.
The effect of having the relationship rewritten as it progresses is to put the audience in the same position as that boy looking up at the David replica. The more time we spend with this man and woman, the more context we are given, but not necessarily more truth, and try as we might it’s difficult to shake our initial gut assessment of their relationship, even once it appears to be mistaken. Cinema is littered with films to use narrative trickery to lead us one direction only to redefine reality in the end, but unlike The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, and so on, Kiarostami’s film doesn’t (necessarily) arrive at a clear and unequivocal truth. It arrives at another truth. Certified Copy doesn’t redefine reality so much as it undefines it. Convoluted as that sounds, it’s the only path the film can take while remaining consistent with its themes. The film’s hypothesis is that absolute truth doesn’t exist and that the search for authenticity only sends us into a tailspin of trying to determine what authenticity really is and what value it really has, if any. Time and again in our lives, what once seemed true is proven false. When this happens, it isn’t reality that changes – because the world was never flat. What changes is our perception of reality.
If that last paragraph strikes you as both elaborate and indistinct, it’s a good reflection of Kiarostami’s film. Certified Copy will prove frustrating for those who want mysteries solved and philosophies gift-wrapped, and yet it’s hardly short on blatant hypothesizing and experimentation. In one scene the woman takes the author to a museum where they discuss a painting that was revered for hundreds of years as an original until it was subsequently proven to be a copy. The painting remains on the wall in spite of this revelation because even though its origins have been redefined, the impact of the copy cannot be undone. Just like a child might keep on loving a parent after a marital infidelity is exposed, the painting’s admirers continue to revere the copy even after its authenticity is rewritten. This would seem to prove the author’s point, that authenticity is of minimal importance, but another scene later on will challenge that notion. After the man and woman get into a bitter spat over the meaning of a sculpture in a courtyard, a passerby will urge the author to comfort his “wife” by putting a hand on her shoulder. Perhaps reluctantly, the author follows the man’s advice, but as compassionate as the gesture appears it also feels like a lie; the man’s wife believes it’s a gesture inspired from within, not an act choreographed by a complete stranger. This scene by no means proves the importance of authenticity, but it reminds us that legitimacy is by no means irrelevant.
Thus, perhaps a better question than whether this man and woman are married is whether they believe what they say to one another. Shimell and Binoche suggest both affection and hostility as this couple, and they do it so well that it’s as difficult to discount their characters’ bond as it is to believe in it. At some point it’s hard to keep from wondering if this relationship is yet another experiment by the author – testing the power of imitation. Kiarostami’s camera often captures his subjects from straight ahead, but the more we stare into these characters’ faces the less they seem to reveal. The film closes with a shot of the author looking into a mirror (actually Kiarostami’s camera) as if staring into his soul, but maybe he’s just studying his face and noting his age. Certified Copy is full of moments like that one. In one particularly captivating shot, an anonymous bride sits in the foreground waiting for her opportunity to have her photo taken. In her blank yet anguished expression you might see impatience, exhaustion, or even despair. Maybe something else. Whatever you see, Certified Copy suggests it likely reveals more about your truth than hers.