Thursday, March 31, 2011

Certified Copy

A French expat living in Tuscany with her teenage son drops in on a lecture by an Englishman on a book tour. (He’s James Miller; she never gets a name, but since she’s played by the great Juliette Binoche, she hardly needs one.) She leaves him her card through his Italian translator, and he shows up the following Sunday for a visit that turns into a day-long date.

That sums up the action in Certified Copy, the latest offering from the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and the first he has ever shot outside his own country. But it doesn’t come close to conveying the playful charm, crafty intelligence, and emotional depth of this wholly original film. If I had to come up with a one-line Hollywood pitch for it, the closest I could come is to say it’s a bittersweet, Two for the Road-style road trip/romance that’s set in a hall of mirrors.

Kiarostami, who often works with nonprofessional actors, cast opera singer William Shimell as Miller. It’s a smart choice, since Shimell is highly photogenic, with his salt-and-pepper hair and carefully tended two-day stubble (the Binoche character has fun teasing him about that beard), but he comes off a little stiff and emotionally inaccessible, as amateur actors often do. And that combination works well for the character, an attractive but coldly analytical sort who tends to speak in academese. It also makes it easier for the camera to close in on Binoche, whose character’s febrile, fast-shifting emotions dominate the action, whether she’s speaking or just watching somebody else.

The feelings that flood her features, like clouds scudding across a windy sky, upstage Miller even at his lecture, where her furious signed argument with her son and whispered exchanges with the translator sitting next to her are always more compelling than whatever the unseen author is droning on about. But we hear enough to know that his subject is copies vs. originals in art, and that his premise has to do with well-done copies being valuable in themselves, in part because they lead us back to the originals.

I interviewed Binoche after Certified Copy screened at the New York Film Festival last fall, and she cautioned against making too much of the copy thing. “I think in the film the dilemma of copy/original is just to find a pretext to put those two [characters] together, so I don't think you have to hang onto it,” she said. She may be right – she has, after all, thought about this movie a lot more than most of us have – but one of the beauties of Certified Copy is how much it leaves open to the viewer’s imagination, as evidenced by critics’ widely varying interpretations of what’s going on between the two leads.

Early in their encounter, they seem to be just an author and a fan, as they meet up and she drives him to Lucignano, a postcard-picturesque town that’s a favorite destination for weddings, especially on a sunny Sunday. Maybe it’s just the influence of all those newly hatched couples, but as the two flirt, bicker, and fight about their (imaginary?) 15-year marriage, they start to feel like a real couple, cycling through years’ worth of tenderness and tension over the course of one afternoon and evening.

Nearly everyone they encounter amplifies this portrait of marriage with a capital M, starting with the bartender who offers Binoche’s character the bluntly pragmatic perspective of a long-married Italian woman. The couple’s interactions with other twosomes are woven in so deftly that you might not realize until you think about the movie afterward – and you will – how many there were, from the brides and grooms she is drawn to and he ignores to the ancient pair who walk slowly out of a church ahead of Miller, their arm-in-arm progress a silent rebuke to his stubborn independence.

So what’s their story? Are they strangers on a creative date who role-play on impulse? Are they actually married, and the role play was the part where they acted like strangers? Or is Kiarostami playing so much with shifts in perspective that, as Roger Ebert hypothesizes, they’re actually strangers in the first half of the movie and a long-married couple in the second?

I’ve seen Certified Copy twice now, once by myself and once with my husband (which was a lot more fun). Both times I was always entranced, sometimes baffled, and never bored. Both times I left the theater thinking about the people I’d just seen on the screen and their thoughts on marriage, love, and how art can catalyze or crystallize our feelings.

And isn’t that one of the main reasons we go to the movies – to see an imitation of life so artful that it tells us something about the real thing? Or, as James Miller might say, to gaze at a copy of real life, first for its own beauty and then because it leads us back to the original, helping us see it with fresh eyes?

Written for TimeOFF

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