Sunday, January 8, 2012

Review: Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

In preparation for catching up with Certified Copy, which had a cinema run here in Australia in early 2011 and was unfortunate to miss, I introduced myself to master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami this week with his 1997 masterpiece Taste of Cherry. I absolutely adored it. Certified Copy, which stars Juliette Binoche (Trois Couleurs: Bleu) and British opera singer William Shimell (in his first film role), has received wide praise (Binoche won Best Actress at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for her intricate performance) and it has appeared on a number of critic's 2011 Top 10 lists. So, though I knew absolutely nothing about the film going in, I was looking forward to it, and my expectations were pretty high.

They were a way. For quite a while I was captivated by the events and during the first half (the film is split, not in an obvious way but a clear one) time really flew by. The chemistry between the exceptional leads was fantastic, the dialogue was interesting (and delves into an array of philosophies and topics), the film beautifully shot (effectively utilising the stunning locations and making use of lengthy takes and mirrored reflections in an interesting way), thought provoking and densely philosophical. I don't want to delve too far into the specifics of the plot, because this would be disservice to anyone yet to see the film, but it is masterfully directed by Kiarostami. He knows exactly what he wants out of every scene - and the way that the emotions of the pair are heightened in the second half means that it not only intriguing, but also quite affecting. The second half is bizarre, much less 'enjoyable' and a little frustrating. Observing these two very different people, though they have a mutual interest in art, converse (and sometimes heatedly disagree), is fascinating. We want to learn more about them, their views on art and their experiences with life. We want to follow them to more beautiful Tuscan locations - until one realises that they may not be as likeable as we initially thought. A viewer is left with questions difficult to answer.

British writer James Miller (Shimell) is in Tuscany to introduce and discuss his new book, 'Certified Copy', where he argues that issues of authenticity are irrelevant because every reproduction is itself an original and even the original has a recognisable point of origin/influence. Beauty of the artwork is in the eye of the beholder - and a recent example is The Tree of Life, a beautiful film which is an experience unique to the individual. How can one criticise someone else for their opinion of that film? Some admire and respect a piece of work in private, while others who may/may not like the work, will try and justify their opinion and convince others that they are right (hmm, that sounds familiar). The way that a piece of work is viewed can actually alter its meaning (and there are several examples of this throughout the film - both with works of art, and with the characters themselves). A copy (in the film universe, a re-make?) is generally viewed with a certain level of discontent, regarded as distasteful and/or lacking respect. When you heard about Matt Reeves' Let Me In or David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, did you receive it with cynicism or disdain, or were you genuinely excited about the project? For most people, probably the former.

A French antiques dealer, Elle (though I don't remember ever learning her name), played by Binoche, attends Miller's talk with her 11-year-old son in the hopes that he will sign the copies of the book she has bought for her relatives. Due to her son's disinterest she is forced to leave early, but leaves her number with a colleague of Miller's. The next scene opens with Miller arriving at Elle's store to meet Elle, with Miller suggesting that they spend the day together and explore the countryside. They start out driving around aimlessly, Miller signs the books, and they discuss originality, before Elle decides to drive them to a local town. They visit a museum, sit together in a cafe, and continue to converse about art, life and everything in between. The written dialogue and the performances are wonderful - making these intellectual discussions flow together beautifully. We admire these characters as much as we admire the beauty of the countryside, and how different this film feels from any other romantic drama.

This is where the *spoilers* come into it.

The film then makes a bizarre turn, when the owner of the cafe mistakes Miller as Elle's husband. Elle decides not to correct the owner (perhaps liking the idea that James is viewed as her husband) and they start discussing him in particular, prompting Elle to reflect on her failed marriage, her actual husband's delayed absence and her inability to control her son. She begins to analyse her evident attraction to her companion (who is outside answering a phone call at this time). We assume James will be oblivious to this, until he reciprocates by moulding into a new role. Suddenly their lives feel weirdly mutual, and despite having seemingly met one another that very day, their relationship seems much more complex. Who is James? It's impossible to discredit him as an art historian, but we are never revealed as to Elle's husband's profession. Is their eerie familiarity a facade and a means to replicate Elle's failed relationship with her husband? Or is James actually her husband?

One is left feeling unsure (because the film is inconclusive) - and you get the sense that Kiartostami is playing around with the idea of originality and ambiguity. As an art form, Certified Copy replicates many romantic dramas, and notably Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset, and seems to be influenced by Alain Resnai's Last Year in Marienbad, but it is the definition of unconventional 'art film', and it knows it. Kiorastami is toying with an audience's expectations, and the film copies a structure - but at the same time proving to be completely unconventional and original...and a little frustrating to be sure. But, the performances are wonderful - I have loved Binoche in everything I have seen her in (Bleu, Chocolat, Code Unknown and Cache), while Shimell is impressive, especially for his first work in a feature. What more can be said about the photography, which is just about perfect in every scene (and I was reminded of Taste of Cherry during the early drive). For many it's a beautiful and intellectually stimulating film, for others it is a complete bore. I did check my watch in the latter half more than I expected, but I still found plenty to admire about Certified Copy, while understanding very little. This has been a bit of a ramble, but perhaps another viewing will help decipher the clues? Then again, perhaps there are no clues.

My Rating: ★★★★ (B)


  1. Nice Review. While reading first couple of paragraphs, I was actually thinking - it looks very much like Before Sunrise/Sunset, more like Sunset. It is available on Netflix. I will surely check it out.

  2. I thought it was a perfect film and had no problems with it, however it took me three viewings of the movie before I reached that opinion, so I can understand your initial distaste for the second half. Kiarostami likes to screw with the viewer's head by making an essentially mainstream film, and then completely turning it on its head, in order to alienate the naive viewers and generate more interest among the people familiar with this style, thus managing to completely turn off people who like "normal" movies, and attract people who are looking for something new. He did this with Taste of Cherry by adding the now infamous epilogue, and there are moments in all of his films where you can sense him testing you, trying to annoy you; you just have to open your mind and accept that this is his style, and he has a very unorthodox sense of humour.

    Since you liked this one and Taste of Cherry, I recommend The Wind Will Carry Us, another great movie.

  3. I guess I could see how the second half could be frustrating, but I thought it was a fantastic transition from the conversations of the front half actually becoming part of the structure of the movie as they begin to act out and become a copy of what could be a real human relationship.

  4. I don't know why I happen to post the same movie review as you couple of times, haha. But I agree with you the second half felt a little frustrating. Partly because they 'suddenly' became this old couple and fighting. It confused me and I have to read the summary in movie web to make sure did I miss something. But I didn't. This kind of ambiguity is interesting and make it memorable somehow.
    Very thorough review here :)

  5. Nice review you have shared here. After read it I am eager to see it.

  6. @ SDG - I can certainly recommend giving it a look. It's very interesting.

    @ Tyler - Yeah, as I continue to learn more about Kiorastami's films I think I'll better understand both the ending of Taste of Cherry and Certified Copy. I enjoyed so many things about them. I want to check out more of his films - thanks for the recommendation.

  7. @ James - I don't really know how to explain why I found it frustrating - because I liked the film overall. I guess I struggled to accept the fact that these people (who I viewed as strangers) could suddenly start arguing and be less than likeable, and shift so much inexplicably. Both halves make sense on their own (but when you compare them and view them together, it doesn't) and I lost interest for a bit. Probably because the film is so ambiguous and unconventional, and I didn't fall for his toying, and just let it unfold. I want to watch it again. I think I'll appreciate it more I think.

    @ Andina - This is like the second/third time we have done this haha. I felt like I had missed something too - and I knew nothing going in. I loved the performances, and I think it is technically brilliant - but the dramatic shift in the characters jarred me, and challenged my interest in the film, which is unfortunate. Still, it's a great film - but one that doesn't sit quite right with me yet.

    @ Magneto - Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy it as much as I.

  8. Great review and I must say it sounds very interesting, I will be seeing it soon, hopefully! I have seen this on so many lists,as well, it must be something! Thanks!

  9. I probably sound incredibly dumb but honestly, I found those intellectual discussions and the lecturing in the beginning incredibly boring and off-putting. This was by far the movie of 2011 that I had the biggest difficulties to stay awake through. I didn't really care about those persons, if they were strangers who pretended to be a couple or a couple pretending to be strangers. And as of the arts vs copy question I think it was far more interesting and entertainingly done in Exit through the Gift shop.

    The most enjoyable in the movie was the pictoresque environment. And that's what they marketed it with in Sweden as well: "Encounter in Tuscany". I suppose they hoped to snare some middleaged women there to watch it. And they succeeded I guess, I was there after all, even though I was bored and disappointed.

  10. @ Aziza - That's the same reason why I sought it out. It appeared on so many lists.

    @ Jessica - I think you make some very vaild points and I was pretty close there for a while switching over to your stance. I really liked the first half, but lost interest in the second. I think you make a great observation mentioning Exit Through the Gift Shop. I wasn't working at a cinema at the time it was released, so i have no 'disappointed' stories, but I can imagine it wasn't everyone's cup of tea.

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