Abbas Kiarostami’s most recent film, Certified Copy, won the Best Actress Award for its star, Juliette Binoche. Binoche had a smaller role in Kiarostami’s recent interesting feature-length experiment, Shirin. In Shirin, we watch a movie audience as they themselves watch a movie – the love story of Khoswrow and Shirin which is an 800-year old Persian romantic myth about self-sacrifice. We see the reactions of the audience, the sound from the film they are watching, but we never see the action of the film.
(Getty Images/Chung Sung-Jun)
Watching Shirin one is, in effect, watching the watchers. These reflections and filters on what an audience sees and knows which Kiarostami experiments with reach a new dimension in Certified Copy.
Since his film, The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas Kiarostami – certainly the greatest Iranian filmmaker - has had difficulties in Iran. His last films were barely distributed. Financing them seems to be an issue. After The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami wrote and published poetry, did photography, went to a lot of festivals, made a short film in Italy, and took part in an interesting exhibition based on correspondence between Kiarostami and Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice. Now he is in the process of transition to make films in Europe – never an easy adjustment for filmmakers whose work is deeply rooted in their own culture.
For her part, Juliette Binoche is smart enough to realize that the number of leading roles available to her is shrinking. She is 46. Her solution is to find directors with interesting ideas and new ways of working, and use her star-value and hopefully bankability – to help them make films in the West in which she gets challenging roles. Her first outing was with the brilliant Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsen, and his first European venture, Flight of the Red Balloon.
Certified Copy is set in Tuscany where Binoche runs an art gallery. She sits prominently in the audience as an English author arrives to read from and promote his latest book which is titled – naturally, Certified Copy. Binoche has bought 6 copies of the book for him to sign. The author – in my opinion, in a rather stiff performance -- is played by British opera star William Shimmel.
Shimmel and Binoche take a drive through the Tuscan countryside, and arrive at the picture-perfect town of Lucignano. Here is where memory – which is, after all, only a copy of the real event – begins to play in a sense of déjà vu and mirrored reality.
Shimmel tells a story which inspired him in writing his book. Binoche responds in an emotional tone. A café proprietress presumes that Binoche and Shimmel are husband and wife. They may have been. Remembering a hotel, she insists on visiting a room which looks over the roofs of Lucignano toward the cathedral. Had they spent a night there together, years before? He remembers nothing.
Binoche and Shimmel – her character is never named during the film – play with these paradoxical elements as a kind of offhanded, jazz riff. It is as if bits and pieces of the characters’ lives were fragments of play-acting and narrative inserted into a story that’s still being written. Does it matter who and what these characters are and what really happened? We won’t really know, and perhaps neither does Kiarostami. It’s a game, a representation of something which will always remain indistinct and elusive – a metaphor for what?
Certified Copy is challenging and – for me, most irritating – when characters constantly slip in and out of different languages. At various times they speak English, Italian, French –shifting in and out of languages like out of wet socks. Do these language changes have a meaning? Damned if I know.
Kiarostami’s strength and uniqueness as a filmmaker has always been in creating situations in which characters become vessels for deeper philosophical ideas. He is rarely much concerned with characters’ psychology. This problem shows up in Certified Copy because the obliqueness of his characters, the way he sets up characters to mirror each other and their situations leads to what I would consider “intellectual mush.”
Kiarostami deliberately keeps the audience from being able to come to any conclusive, logical interpretation of either the characters or their situations. Every character clue is followed by an ironic undermining and questioning of that same clue.
In the end, you can’t be sure of much that you’ve seen, except, perhaps, the beautiful Tuscan countryside. There is a lot to be said for that.
Milos Stehlik’s commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ. His reviews air on Fridays.