The game of marriage, game of love
Kiarostami, the most honored of the contemporary “Iranian New Wave” directors, told an English journalist last year that he would never move from his native country. However, he has now directed an international film, produced in France (by MK2), starring a French actress (Juliette Binoche) and an English opera singer (William Shimell), shot in Tuscany, with dialogue in English, French, and Italian. And while the director, who made more than forty films at home in Iran and received many awards for them abroad, has been noted for unusual camera positions and confusing narrative gaps as well as harsh themes of politics and death, this new film is more of a glossy chamber piece. Except for a sequence shot into a car like ones he did in several earlier films, it’s shot in a smooth, straightforward manner and depicts the story of a man and a woman who meet and spend a few hours together. She drives him to a touristy town called Lucignano. They argue, they drink coffee, they talk, perhaps they make love. And that’s all there is too it.
Except that Certified Copy (Copie conforme is the original French title) is a teasing puzzle film that plays games with the theme announced in the title — also the name of a book-length essay by James Miller (Shimell). He is giving a lecture (in English) celebrating the publication of the book in Italian. His thesis is that a good copy is as valid as the work of art it’s based on and can give as much pleasure.
The weakness of this entertaining film, which includes a suave, if neutral performance by the opera singer Mr. Shimall (who had a purely spoken part before), and a richly histrionic one by Binoche, who received the Best Actress prize for it at Cannes this year, is that it is all simply a conceit — about identity. Viewers with a long memory will remember Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, in which a man meets a woman and claims they met there the previous year. The question is repeated over and over, and never resolved. The film, with its setting at an austerely grand old European spa, is a series of aesthetic delights, of pleasing abstract geometries. Certified Copy is something different — but not entirely. Though superficially much warmer and without the austere elegance, it too is only a riddle.
The couple seems to be playing a game. There are many hints at the talk that She/Elle (Binoche) is a visitor who has heard of and seen this English writer and wants to meet him. She has seen and read his book, and so has her sister Marie. Her young son, to whom she speaks in French, seems to know she is interested in this Englishman and teases her about it. He too attends the man’s talk, but is bored by it, perhaps doesn’t even understand. (But does the audience? They are Italians.) She sends a note to Miller, and after an awkward meeting at her antique shop in the town — later it emerges she has lived in Italy for five years — she is soon driving him off to Lucignano in her car while he signs six copies of his book for her.
When they get to a cafe and Miller leaves to take a phone call, the mistress of the cafe has a conversation with her, in Italian, about marriage, assuming Miller is her husband. She takes up this game, saying they have been married for fifteen years. When Miller comes back she tells him, in English, about this. For the rest of the film she and Miller pretend to be a married couple. And they do it so well that we, the viewers, become increasingly confused. What is the game? That they are married, or that they were not married and are now playing at being married? And, in the terms set up (a little too neatly) by Miller’s essay book, mightn’t a fake marriage be as good as a real one? They seem to evoke the accumulated resentments and ill reproaches and indifference of fifteen years of marriage so convincingly. Little things cast doubt on the original situation, for example the fact that now, Miller speaks a lot to her in French, whereas at first they spoke only English. Shimell may be less of an actor than Binoche (one would expect so), but his mellow voice sounds like Cary Grant’s and he has nice wavy gray hair. He’s a nice posh fake husband — or disappointing real one; take your pick.
The trouble with this, other than its being entirely contrived to puzzle the audience, is that it falls back on the essential fakery of conventional filmmaking, where well-trained (and well-directed and rehearsed) actors are able to play out emotional little scenes in a convincing way even though they often don’t know who their characters are or where the scene will go in the final sequence of the edited film. Unfortunately films are too often just a game anyway; this is not particularly different. And Certified Copy seems false also in the way of an international production directed by a famous filmmaker from far away, with French, English, and Italian actors, glamorous accoutrements (a posh antique shop, nice car; a well-known writer who’s just won a prize in Italy), posh voices, multi-lingual conversation — so that, with the help of subtitles, we can enjoy feeling how international and sophisticated we are. Certified Copy is pleasant enough. Binoche, acting with equal fluency in English, French, and even Italian, gives a dazzling performance with emotional moments. But since the point is to puzzle us rather than movie us, now of it seems to matter much.
Certified Copy/Copie conforme was seen and reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. It premiered at Cannes, and opened the next day, May 19, 2010, in Paris; two days later in Italy. It opens theatrically in the US in March 2011.
DIRECTOR: ABBAS KIAROSTAMI
WRITER: ABBAS KIAROSTAMI
CAST: JULIETTE BINOCHE, WILLIAM SHIMELL, JEAN0CLAUDE CARRIÈRE: