It is not an easy time to be an Iranian filmmaker. As mentioned in yesterday’s notes on Iranian films playing Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, acclaimed directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammed Rasoulof received six-year prison sentences last December for allegedly creating “propaganda against the state.” Abbas Kiarostami, generally considered the country's greatest cinematic artist, hasn't been allowed to show his films there for years. Yet when he elected to make his first narrative feature outside Iran with his friend and fan, French movie star Juliette Binoche, that decision was branded an act of “cultural destruction.”
Certified Copy will certainly not be playing Tehran anytime soon, and not just because Binoche shows some skin. (Meaning her shoulders are bared.) It is at once unquestionably a Kiarostami film—chockfull of unbroken long shots and narrative ambiguities—and an almost quintessentially European art film, in some ways having more in common with the likes of Last Year at Marienbad than The Wind Will Carry Us or Taste of Cherry. Its freshly acquainted characters wander around Tuscany chatting, perhaps at the start of a relationship, but this is no Italian Before Sunrise. If you're considering Copy as a date movie, let's hope your date is in a mood to be puzzled, provoked, and possibly have their patience tested.
Nonetheless, most will find their effort rewarded, even as the director's barely-there narrative grows ever more obtuse. It starts out quite straightforwardly: English author James (William Shimell) gives a lecture in Florence, and is asked by a French antiques dealer (Binoche, whose character is never named) to meet with her privately. They end up driving around the exquisite countryside, and it is her whim to pretend to strangers that they are an established couple. Soon they are really acting like one; eventually we're not so sure they aren't. For one thing, strangers in their position are usually cautious and polite. But these two are soon arguing as if they'd been getting on each other's matrimonial nerves for a decade.
Binoche won the Best Actress award at Cannes last year, and she runs the gamut of emotions with mercurial panache, her figure alternately critical, sensitive, sentimental, annoyed and wistful. In a more realistic film you might wonder if she's bipolar; in Kiarostami's universe she's simply a vivid enigma, as much an abstract concept as a woman.
Shimell—an opera singer making his non-singing thespian debut, whom the director hired after a series of name actors including Robert De Niro and Sami Frey bowed out—is tasked with being the immovable object to her unstoppable force, placidly self-absorbed and stubbornly unruffled no matter how far she flies off the handle. (His dry reserve recalls George Sanders, who starred opposite Ingrid Bergman in Roberto Rossellini's 1954 Voyage in Italy—a decaying-marriage drama that is clearly a major reference point here.) Viewed alongside Binoche firing on all cylinders, Shimell's affectless, low-key presence has struck some observers as underwhelming. Yet it is he who provides the film with much of its elegance and intellect. In entirely different ways, both performers make some irrational behaviors and dialogue seem very natural, a difficult thing to make look this easy. At one of many moments when the film seems to be commenting on itself, James says, “I'm afraid there's nothing very simple about being simple.”
At another, he says “I wrote [my latest] book” —which argues for copies being just as valuable as originals in art— “partly to convince myself of my own idea,” and some will doubtless view the movie itself as similarly too deliberate an exercise in meta-gamesmanship. Yet there's humor to it, and a palpable ease—perhaps for Kiarostami making a film in Europe was a vacation of sorts. After expecting the worst from certain reviews (though the French loved it, natch), I found his divertissement an intriguing mixed bag on my first viewing. A second watch months later was necessary, if not especially appealing, to write this review—but it was then that Certified Copy became quite fascinating, even delightful. It is quite possible that after another viewing or two it will start looking like a small masterpiece.
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