Of Two Minds

03.01.11

Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 106 minutes.


IT’S BEEN AWHILE: Certified Copy marks Iranian legend Abbas Kiarostami’s first feature-length fiction film to receive American distribution since Ten in 2002. Since that time, the director has mostly directed shorts and documentaries, a notable exception being Shirin (2008; not released theatrically in the States), a film that consists entirely of fictional female moviegoers reacting to a fictional medieval romance playing offscreen. Shirin works by way of ironies, containing within its uncompromising, anticommercial form a decidedly commercial piece of entertainment.

Certified Copy is the complete inverse: a superficially commercial vehicle replete with international stars (Juliette Binoche), picturesque European settings (Tuscany), and a story concerning relationships and communication. But the boilerplate trappings boldly pull the rug out from under the movie’s audience. In the first half of the film, Binoche, playing an unnamed antiques dealer, escorts a friend-of-a-friend British writer (William Shimell) through Tuscany after the final stop on his book tour. Shimell has penned a controversial study on the nature of reproduced and forged art, and in the style of My Dinner with Andre (1981), he discusses with the harried and somewhat daft Binoche the complex nature of authenticity, subjectivity, and the difference between juvenile and adult approaches to the world.

In short, we’re led to think we’ve seen this movie before: a middlebrow European import touching tastefully on matters of art and life as the principal characters slowly gravitate toward love. But midway through, something completely unexpected occurs: Binoche and Shimell become different characters in a new story. No major event demarcates this shift. Now they are a long-married couple on the verge of a breakup; as they continue to traverse the pleasant landmarks of an old village, Binoche confronts Shimell about his increasing remoteness while Shimell angrily defends himself.

Kiarostami’s unusual narrative structure could be read any number of ways. Toward the end of the film’s first half, an Italian café owner mistakes Binoche and Shimell for a couple; the details Binoche invents as she plays along are then taken up in the second half. Binoche also alludes to having suffered a mental breakdown in her past, and thus the second half of the film could be a fantasy dreamed up by this slightly disturbed single mother of one. Or the entire thing is a formalist exercise. At one point Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière makes a cameo. Among Carrière’s credits are The Milky Way (1969) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), films that similarly warp traditional form to emphasize the fluidity of identity and the endless possibilities of representation.

Such concerns are announced early in Certified Copy’s cerebral first half, but what makes the film the most successfully bifurcated narrative since David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) (or Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady [2004]) is the way it challenges cinematic convention while also harmoniously joining theme and character (are our protagonists just mimicking the relationship narratives they know by rote?), creating surprising correspondences between affect and philosophical musings on artifice and perception. Kiarostami makes good on his gamble by creating unique compositions, playful sight gags, and a resonant sadness out of the interactions of his principal couple, or couple of couples. That their identities remain ambiguous doesn’t mean Kiarostami has divided his attention or spread himself thin—if anything, he has conceived a film with inexhaustible meanings, moods, and ideas, returning to our screens as subtle and mysterious as ever.

Michael Joshua Rowin

Certified Copy opens Friday, March 11, at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center in New York, and at various theaters in Los Angeles.