[Writer’s note: Certified Copy is best seen cold. However, discussion of it requires spoiling elements. If you have not seen it yet, do not read this piece. Just know that the film is incredible.]
If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale, two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another forever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street.—Natalia Ginzburg, He and I
A man and a woman stop in a café. They’re perfect strangers or just-acquaintances, and having a perfectly good time. Then the man tells a joke that the woman doesn’t enjoy. She starts crying, and the man conveniently gets up to take a phone call outside. A waitress asks the woman what’s wrong, and the woman describes the problems that arise once you’ve been married for 15 years. When the man comes back inside, we no longer know the nature of their relationship. They laugh at the absurdity of the thought of being married, only to argue eventually over whether he’s neglected her and the kid.
This is the point during Certified Copy when a lot of viewers check out, the spot where it shifts from a funny, sunny jaunt through Italy to a rom-com version of Persona. But Abbas Kiarostami’s new movie has been preparing us for this moment all along. The two people are simultaneously playing the new couple and the old one, plus the actors playing them. The dissolution of personal identity is merely the last goal of Kiarostami’s overall project in this film, which is to dissolve the line between copy and original altogether.
It’s best to start by defining a few terms. The man, James (William Shimell), is a British art critic blatantly modeled after Arthur Danto, who’s made a journey toward Tuscany to give a talk on his new book. He races into the room, late, and stands before a microphone and in front of two statues. “Art is not an easy subject to write about,” he says, “There are no fixed points of reference, no easy truths to fall back on.” Then after all this hemming and hawing, he gets down to the point: “The copy itself has worth in itself in that it leads us to the original and in that way certifies its value.” A copy for him is meant to give its original meaning; that’s its point, and its function. The pretty woman he meets later (Juliette Binoche) disagrees. She talks about her sister, who’ll buy any piece of art that looks good, no matter where it came from, because for her “there’s no difference between a copy and an original.” Each separate copy of a work, then, is its own original object.
This is an aesthetic clash, built strictly around fine art. But it extends to the world beyond, too. The couple decides to take a car ride, and the movie shoots them from the front. As they talk we see people on the street behind them through the back window and the reflection of the city scrolling down in front. These images are reflections, but you could also call them representations, interpretations, reinterpretations, or translations. As you look at them, it’s worth asking whether they are merely parts subordinate to the buildings they represent, the images certifying the value of the actual, or whether the images are their own actual objects, with a value equal to or greater than the items they represent. As captured with golden afternoon light by Kiarostami’s Red One camera, they’re certainly much more beautiful.
The issue of whether a translation is its own art work comes up much more frequently in literature, perhaps because it’s easier to imagine placing a book and its translated manuscript next to each other than it is to envision Empire projected onto the Empire State. Samuel Beckett translated his own French-language novels into English, an occasion he saw as a chance to rewrite them; the most famous line he ever wrote in English, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” has no equivalent in The Unnameable’s original French-language tome. It’s possible that some utterances sound better in other tongues. Certainly James the imperious Englishman finds this to be the case when his book’s original clunky, multi-word title receives the translated appellation of Copie Conforme, which spun once more into English gives us the title of this film. In this case, ironically, James prefers a copy to its original.
His preference is doubly ironic given that for much of the film he refuses to speak a language other than his own. As he and the woman (no name save She) deal with Italians, she ends up doing the translating. In one amazingly dialectical moment, an Italian man starts speaking, subtitles appear on the bottom of the screen, and the woman—who’s French—delivers English out loud. The moment recalls/borrows/steals/translates the way the Italian girl gives a simultaneous parallel text to whatever the English- or French-speakers are uttering in Godard’s movie Contempt, itself about translation, adaptation (the literary work The Odyssey into cinema), and whether the two are in fact the same. At first She chooses to address James in English, not her original language; then, as the movie progresses and they change from a happy new couple to an embittered old one, they start conversing in French. If one person chooses to speak another’s language, does that make him or her a copy?
Eldridge Cleaver once claimed (adapting a Lewis Carroll point) that a society’s rulers were the one that defined terms, and that the subordinate group was the one speaking the ruling group’s language. A Wall Street Journal article this past July made the case that language influences culture, and that the sets of words that people are taught to use help shape the way they think. Certified Copy doesn’t seem to agree or disagree with this thesis; in fact, its goal seems to be to leave the question open. But when the couple’s members in this movie change the language they’re speaking, they’re also changing the way they relate to each other—and, by extension, they’re changing who they are.
Who are these two people? We know, or we start off thinking, that he’s a single art critic from England, and that she’s a single French mother running a crafts store, but all that changes in a hurry. The more they talk about themselves and their past lives together, the less we can say for certain about them, and perhaps the less they can say about themselves. While he’s outside on his cellphone, She complains to the old woman running the coffee shop that he works too much and She loves him too much; in other words, the clichéd standard life rafts that an overwhelming quantity of art informs us that men (work) and women (love) hang on to in order to form an identity. The playwright Sarah Ruhl believes that her characters have never spoken before their first line of dialogue. Similarly, it’s entirely possible that James and She have never existed before the movie started and are now, like the narrator in Last Year at Marienbad, inventing different histories for themselves to see if any one sticks. They could very well be original organisms copying behaviors, traits, and tendencies they recognize to be standard-issue human (Godard’s new work, Film Socialisme, also addresses how people form their identities through imitation). Or else they could be copies of people that existed before the movie started and continue to exist long after it’s ended: the actors playing them, William Shimell and Juliette Binoche.
Binoche is a world-famous Oscar- and César-winning actress who’s worked with important directors from Michael Haneke to Hou Hsiao-hsien. In this movie she laughs, cries, shouts, whispers, looks concerned, and does everything she can think of to hold on to her man. It’s an extraordinarily active performance, one that won her the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year and that has been more or less unilaterally acclaimed since. Shimell, by contrast, is an opera singer appearing in his first movie, and many critics have attacked his performance as wooden and flat. Furthermore, they’re right to do so: Shimell has a rich, wonderful baritone voice, but he underplays comedy, overplays anger, thrusts his arms around awkwardly, and appears self-conscious throughout. But the sharp contrast between performers and performance styles proves one more one way to melt originals and copies together.
To illustrate why, I’d like to offer an anecdote. A year ago, I saw a Broadway production of the musical South Pacific. The actors all cohered to a broad, corny performance style typical to musicals, save for one actor in a small, non-singing, usually forgettable role. He looked awkward on stage, shifting his feet around uncomfortably, waiting for other actors to signal his cues for him and sometimes even leaping in and bellowing his lines prematurely. A critic reviewing the show would likely say that he gave a terrible performance, and would be accurate, but after a while his struggles became so plain to me that my thinking shifted: I stopped thinking of his work as performance, and saw him as a human being trying to give a performance. And then, once that happened, he became the most compelling part of the show.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, critical evaluations of acting usually focus on two aspects. The first is whether the performance seems realistic—in other words, whether the critic believes that the actor is, puppeteer-like, making the character behave in the way that that person (the character) would actually behave if he encountered the same fictional situation in real life. The second is whether the actor’s performance coheres tonally and stylistically with that of the piece’s other performers. Work like Clint Eastwood’s blatantly awkward John Huston imitation in White Hunter, Black Heart, which neither creates a psychologically convincing fictional type nor matches the more naturalistic work done by many of the movie’s other actors, likely strikes many viewers as weird. Indeed, it doesn’t work at all within the context of White Hunter, Black Heart’s fictional narrative, but it works extraordinarily well if you step outside the story and see Eastwood trying to make you aware of how uncomfortable he is playing a violent man, which in turn changes the way you approach his entire film career.
Shimell doesn’t seem as in control of his movements and deliveries as Eastwood is, but the effect of making you aware of the performance, and of the person giving it as a result, is the same. Because Kiarostami has cast him opposite not just a professional actress, but an extremely indicative, extroverted one (Binoche has given several of her best performances playing characters who are actresses), it becomes obvious that she is giving a performance as well. By putting them together, Kiarostami makes his wildly divergent leads look equally fake—and, as a result, also equally authentic.
A film like Certified Copy explodes truisms about acting. Actors may be copying real people, but they also are real people; and while most people don’t appear in movies, human beings are constantly acting. This is especially true of love, in which one partner often behaves in a way that he or she hopes will get a reaction from the other; as Roland Barthes argues in A Lover’s Discourse, the lover is constantly playing the role of lover, even when telling the truth. One of Kiarostami’s favorite quotes is from Nietzsche: “That which is truly deep needs a mask.” In previous films like 1994’s Through the Olive Trees and 1999’s The Wind Will Carry Us, the director has cast professional actors opposite nonprofessionals to comment on power relations—the trained actors were adults playing upper-class artists taking advantage of middle- or lower-class amateur children. In Certified Copy, by contrast, both professional and nonprofessional are upper-class adults, bringing the power dynamics closer than in his earlier work and going even deeper than Nietzsche’s line: Peoples’ masks are the same as their faces.
You get this sense from Certified Copy’s last shot, in which Kiarostami places the camera where the bathroom mirror would be and so has James/Shimell look directly at us. It’s also a part of one of the greatest moments in perhaps Kiarostami’s greatest film, the masterpiece of self-reflexivity, 1990’s Close-Up. A man says that he has given up his dream of being an actor, another man asks if he’s performing for the camera at that moment, and the man says no. What resonates about the moment is the resolution you get that he is simultaneously lying and telling the truth. The camera’s presence paradoxically helps you realize how people are always acting, even when they’re off screen. Jonathan Rosenbaum summarizes the point on the Close-Up DVD’s commentary track: “Is being, as opposed to acting, a form of acting?”
The question of whether we can distinguish between being and acting inevitably leads to whether we can distinguish fiction from nonfiction. Godard once said that a film was always a documentary of its making; Kiarostami once said, with a little more humor, that “there isn’t as much of a distinction between documentary and fiction as there is between a good movie and a bad one.” Ed Gonzalez is spot-on to place Certified Copy in the tradition of films ranging from Voyage to Italy to Before Sunset (though I’d go back even further, to at least Sunrise)—not merely because it’s a wonderful romance like those movies, but because they all juxtapose a couple’s scripted drama with the unscripted drama of the city surrounding them. Placing the fictional narrative within a documentary setting turns both into both.
Furthermore, the ostensibly fictional moments of Certified Copy’s two protagonists looking in mirrors, or of seeing themselves mirrored in other couples—a particularly fun one comes when they argue while standing next to happy newlyweds—mirror the ostensible documentary ending of another one of Kiarostami’s great films, 1997’s Taste of Cherry. The fictional protagonist lies down in a ditch at night to kill himself, the action captured in 35mm; the film then cuts to an epilogue shot on video, in which Kiarostami and his crew set up for a daytime shot while the lead actor smokes a cigarette and a military group marches by. The juxtaposition of the two scenarios, with all their differences—director and crew, military and civilian, film and video, daytime and nighttime, fiction and nonfiction, life in front of the camera and life behind it—suggests a world large enough to encompass them.
The greatest original-copy boundary that Certified Copy dissolves is the one between cinema and the rest of the world. (Incidentally, the movie was shot on digital video and subsequently developed on 35mm, so that its very substance includes multiple ways of capturing the world.) Kiarostami’s films frequently showcase people riding in cars, and Rosenbaum says on Close-Up’s DVD commentary that “being in a car is like being in a film audience: You’re alone, and yet with other people.” In 2002’s Ten, Kiarostami kept his female protagonist in a car for the entirety of the movie to suggest Iranian women’s social imprisonment; even when in public, they’re still constricted. The car scene at Certified Copy’s outset is long enough for you to think that the entire film will proceed in this fashion, with the protagonists contained within the car and the exterior world rolling down their window, but then the movie throws you by having them stop the car and get out to interact with the rest of the world surrounding them, including us.
This shift is especially surprising—and, frankly, welcome—considering the minimal direction in which Kiarostami’s recent films have gone. Kiarostami’s film career perhaps makes most sense when we consider his simultaneous career as one of Iran’s greatest poets, whose persona was that of a stripped-down observer who could instantly distill both great beauty:
The more I think
the less I understand
the reason for all the whiteness of the snow.
And great sorrow:
The more I think
the less I understand
why the truth should be so bitter.
He brought this sense of wonder to a series of childrens’ educational films in the 1970s and early ’80s, then to a string of melancholy comedies from 1987’s Where Is the Friend’s House? through to The Wind Will Carry Us that sought to reconcile as many disparate parts of the Iranian population as possible—rich and poor, adults and children, Turks and Afghans. All showcased a gentle sweetness that movies hadn’t seen before: Close-Up’s first scene, for instance, leaves a police investigation off screen so that it can focus on a reporter watching a spray can roll down a hill. In 2000, Film Comment voted him the greatest director of the previous decade; many believed him the greatest in the world.
Then, after a documentary about his trip to visit AIDS victims in Uganda (2001’s ABC Africa), Kiarostami experimented with what he called “one-word cinema.” Ten consisted of 10 shots of an Iranian woman driving; 2005’s Five: Dedicated to Yasujirô Ozu showcased five static long shots at different points along the Caspian Sea; two essayistic making-of films explained his methods; and 2008’s Shirinbriefly featured Binoche as one of over 100 women in a theater, each of whom Kiarostami filmed looking up at an off-screen film.
Certified Copy actually logically develops from Shirin. Both films express the director Jacques Tati’s idea that audience and performers are interchangeable by focusing on people watching a staged love drama. In Certified Copy, though, much more so than in Shirin, the characters are simultaneously audience and actors—and so, too, Kiarostami says, are we. If his previous films were one-word cinema, then Certified Copy’s a dictionary, one that includes a mirror on every page.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.