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.

16 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

Best movie of 2011 so far. Or does it count as 2010 since it opened at NYFF last year? Either way, this is thought-provoking stuff.

For me, the scene that encapsulates the film is the one where the main couple fights over a statue they run across in a public square. As they go their separate ways to cool off, Shimell spies an older couple having a similar argument in front of the statue. You can see Shimell recognizing his own faults in the way he judgementally looks at the older tourist. Then the tourist turns to the camera and we see he hasn't been arguing with his wife at all, but yelling into his hands-free cellular device.

I also like how the credit roll at the end of the film accentuates the proscenium effect of the hotel room window, reminding us that this is not a depiction of reality, as you point out, but a well-staged cinematic performance.

Craig said...

A great grappling with what I think will become one of the most important films of the decade. I won't pretend to have any decisive answers on what's going on in "Certified Copy," only impressions, but watching it made me think back to a history course I took where the professor stressed the difference between Eastern and Western concepts of time. This is a broad and imperfect generalization, but the gist of it was the West tends to regard time in linear, literal terms, whereas the East has more cyclical, metaphorical notions of time.

I thought of this because, in "Certified Copy," we have an Eastern filmmaker making his first foray into Western moviemaking and essentially splitting the difference between these two philosophies. We follow an extremely linear narrative in a deeply metaphorical sense, with the protagonists living out an entire relationship - from meet-cute to possible disintegration - over the course of one day. The only idea in your analysis that I'm not sure I buy is the claim that Kiarostami "is trading narrative cohesion for audience manipulation." I think the narrative is quite cohesive, when looked at a certain way; and I don't think he's out to manipulate us, at least not in the sense that the movie is a puzzle to be solved (which I realize you're not claiming). I took away from the movie the idea that Kiarostami wants us to think about not only "Time" but the elusiveness of time for people who share it.

This is one of your best reviews, my friend. I like reading reviews that aren't afraid of admitting they don't have all the answers. Which reminds me of how much I laughed at this line at the end of David Denby's piece: "Of one thing there can be no doubt: the movie celebrates marriage, which, after all, can be sustained only if it becomes a kind of narrative that a man and a woman create, develop, and vary as they go along." I have no problem with the last part of that statement. But I'm less certain that Kiarostami sees that kind of narrative as a cause for celebration.

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony: I'm calling it a 2011 picture. Until it's released to the masses, it isn't released, I say. (That said, 10 years from now I'll look at the IMDb page and call it a 2010 film. Arg.) Where was I ...

This is indeed thought-provoking stuff. The film gives us so much to chew on that I'd forgotten all about that moment with the cell phone, even though I thought it was terrific when it happened. Even writing this review I struggled with which examples to use, because there are so many.

I hadn't thought about the "proscenium effect of the hotel room window," but I like that reading, and I love the image. Thinking about it more, it really does feel like these actors have stepped off the stage, and now we're left to pick up our loose thoughts and shuffle out of the theater.

(More to come ...)

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: The only idea in your analysis that I'm not sure I buy is the claim that Kiarostami "is trading narrative cohesion for audience manipulation."

Yeah, I considered rewriting that. It needs to be read as closely aligned with the sentence after it. What I meant is that Kiarostami is trying to put the audience through the experience of believing in something and finding out that what we believed might not be true. Often the word "manipulation" is used as a criticism, but I don't mean it that way. I simply mean that Kiarostami wants us to "get it" emotionally, to go through that experience of having our own idea of truth rewritten, even if that means breaking away from a linear narrative.

Anyway ...

Building off of Tony's comment, I can't say this film first makes me think of the words "great" (Tony's word) or "important" (your word), although I certainly understand why people would apply those words, and I'm not really disagreeing with those assessments. For my taste, this film feels a little too academic/scientific for me to be completely enchanted. In fact, at one point it hit me that it's actually not completely unlike Inception in that it spends so much time explaining its architecture -- themes this time, instead of dreams -- and as thought-provoking as it is, sometimes I wanted it just to breathe. But, wow, it certainly offers a lot to chew on.

(More to come ...)

Steven Santos said...

All of our reviews have been grappling with the movie in some way, which is why I certainly agree with your last line about what you see in it reveals much about yourself.

As I wrote in my own piece, I saw the film more as a representation of the stages of a relationship rather than accept any possibility this can happen in one day. Everyone talks about how the scene in the cafe is the one where the film makes a switch, but I think a change happens in this relationship from scene to scene, as if the characters were picking up new details about themselves as the day went on. I'm almost wondering if there were 15 scenes total in the film to represent each year this relationship has lasted.

Jason Bellamy said...

I meant to work this observation into my review, and completely forgot about it (again, there's just so much to grapple with), but one of the things that makes this film very rewarding for me is that for all its abstractions and for all the ways it is difficult to decode, I have no doubt that Kiarostami knows exactly what his picture is about. That makes this film feel different than, say, something from David Lynch, who I think sometimes puts things on screen without specific intent. This is a personal preference, but I like to feel like a filmmaker has a clear message he/she wants to deliver, even if that message is kept beyond reach.

Denby's take is interesting, because the only thing I feel fairly sure of is that it's nearly impossible to be sure about anything with this picture. And I certainly wouldn't say this is a celebration of marriage. I can see how one gets to that point, but frankly I think one could read that last closeup of the author and decide that he's nothing but a fraud.

The question I've been asking myself for these past few days since seeing the film is how ready I am to see it again. I feel like I need to let it escape my system a bit more so that I go in with comparatively open eyes. Put another way, at the moment I love thinking about this picture, and so I'm somewhat surprised that I'm not yearning to see it again as soon as possible.

Craig said...

In fact, at one point it hit me that it's actually not completely unlike Inception in that it spends so much time explaining its architecture -- themes this time, instead of dreams

It's funny, but I've always thought of "A Taste of Cherry" as the "Memento" of Iranian cinema...

But seriously, that's a valid point, though I'm not convinced that the architecture of "Certified Copy" is meant to be a sound structure. In fact, it's refreshingly more malleable than Nolan's concept of dreams. I know, that's a whole 'nother argument, so I won't press further on it here. I will say that "Certified Copy" reminded me more of what would happen if "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset," and the next two sequels were all distilled into one movie.

Jason Bellamy said...

Steven: I'm almost wondering if there were 15 scenes total in the film to represent each year this relationship has lasted.

That would blow my mind. I have a hunch it could probably be counted that way, with a little massaging. (For example: does the cafe "scene" count as just one or two scenes? You could argue that one either way.)

I need to catch up on reviews, but I certainly agree that some way or another this film explores the stages of relationships. There are constant reminders: the meet-cute, the wedding party, the elderly couple at the end, the middle-aged couple in the courtyard, etc. Heck, even the way that she pretties herself up in the bathroom while he never bothers to shave presents an early/late relationship contrast.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

A typically insightful review of a stunning film, Jason. I really need to see this again.

http://www.stlmag.com/Blogs/Look-Listen/April-2011/Review-Certified-Copy/

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: Yeah, I don't want the Inception comment to be read as anything more than a comparison about how these films verbally discuss their architecture. Obviously they're vastly different pictures. The Before Sunrise and Before Sunset reading is much more reflective of the film as a whole, no question. I'm just saying that just as I watched Inception and wished it could "just be," rather than constantly describing itself, I had a similar thought while watching this film. Sometimes all those words made it hard for me to get beyond my intellectual connection with the film to feel it on an emotional level.

Jason Bellamy said...

Here's a question for everyone that I'm also going to pose on Twitter ...

When you watched this film, did you find yourself thinking more about the authenticity of art or relationships, or did you find yourself thinking about them in equal measure?

Craig said...

I'd say 75-25 between relationships and art -- or "life" and art, at any rate. That could be because that's where my interest lay while watching the film or because that's where Kiarostami's heart was at. I sort of got the sense that he was amused by Shimell's thesis, but maybe I was just amused. As you indicated, and Steven pointed out, it's the kind of movie that tells you a lot about your own perspective.

I have no doubt that Kiarostami knows exactly what his picture is about.

I think he does too. But I like that he allows the viewer his or her own interpretation; he doesn't crowd you. The movie does offer "breathing room" in that instance.

Steven Santos said...

In response to your question, both equally. The authenticity of art, certainly, because it happens to be one of my main issues about modern filmmaking that I've written about often. The degree to which art is either just replicating the past work of others or commenting upon it.

And I thought about the authenticity of relationships because I think most enter them thinking they will be genuine copies of the most idealistic couplings they have seen. And I wouldn't be surprised if most people's concept of an ideal marriage is formed by tv and movies. Copies of copies.

Jake said...

I managed to see this last year and it was far and away my favorite feature. But since it's been so long and it's such a dense movie I'm afraid to talk about it. But I think Kiarostami doesn't intend for it to comment on one or the other so much as both. By proving that copies of art can be valid, Kiarostami also gets at issues in relationships, though I'm less sure what exactly (for want of a better term) he's saying about those. But the film is coming to Montgomery in a week and I cannot wait to see it on the big screen.

I am also extremely glad I saw this last year so I didn't have to choose between this and Uncle Boonmee at the end of the year. I don't even know that Malick can approach these two movies.

Jason Bellamy said...

I think Kiarostami doesn't intend for it to comment on one or the other so much as both.

Agreed.

When I watched the film I found myself thinking more about art than about relationships. In terms of actual time, it was probably a 70/30 split. That said, the 30 percent that made me think about relationships was often more powerful than the content that made me think about art. So in terms of effect, it was close to a 50/50 split.

Maybe the above explains why I seemed to have a less emotional connection to the film than some of you seem to have had. But the reason I ask the question is that for the past few months I've been pondering writing a rambling post that would deal with, among other things, the worth of "copies" in art. Thus the debate at the start of the film provided more juice for a train of thought that was already zooming along. Because Kiarostami does provide so much room for alternate interpretation and experience, it's interesting to hear where people end up.

Jake said...

I think the distinction you make between time and effect is spot on. Kiarostami mostly keeps the discussion and focus on the art, but so many interpretations come from that and the film is so multifaceted that even the most specifically art-centric topics wind up applying to the relationship arc as well. Plus, I found most of it really funny; there were moments that grabbed me emotionally, but mainly I think it puts Kiarostami's wit on front display in all these double meanings and broad interpretations. It's like a joke where the audience gets to pick the punchline.