Joe Stile | Amo
Published: Thursday, March 7, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 7, 2013 03:03
Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s movies have always been intelligent and challenging pictures, but not until “Certified Copy” (2010) has one had such an emotional, yet accessible, tone.
Literary critic Walter Benjamin argues in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that a reproduction, no matter how close to the original, can never be as good as the original because it lacks its “aura.” Reproductions don’t have the context and aren’t part of the tradition of the original and are therefore inadequate.
Why bring up an 80−year−old art history article in a film column (besides to be pretentious, that is)? Well, it’s because “Certified Copy” is more of a philosophical debate put on film rather than it is a traditional narrative.
The film opens with James, played by opera singer William Shimell, directing a panel on his book. The book theorizes that copies have value because they can lead back to the original and to knowledge of the self. This opening plays out as the film’s central thesis gets tested through Juliette Binoche’s unnamed character’s afternoon together with James.
In the span of one day, the couple morphs — from two people meeting for the first time to a deteriorating couple celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary. This bizarre transformation — which is spurred by a woman in a cafe mistaking them for husband and wife — is jarring, to say the least. The movie thankfully stays grounded enough in universal emotions to survive the initially bewildering situation.
It isn’t clear at first if the couple is just play−acting being married or if they have become new people after the cafe. It seems likely that the film is using this ambiguity to get at the idea of the fluidity of identity, which allows these characters to drastically change over the course of a single evening. While the logic of all this is tangled and messy, the emotions could not be clearer, which keeps the picture from ever seeming muddled.
This all ties into James’ argument about copies. Binoche’s character and James replicate all the gestures and semblance of a crumbling marriage, and the viewer feels for them, even though it’s only a reproduction, because they hit on ideas that are true, even if their relationship isn’t.
It’s still heartrending to hear Binoche’s character explain how she feels like her “husband” has emotionally abandoned her, even though we know he hasn’t. It’s just as stirring to hear James say that he was there the best he could be, even though he never was. Their relationship is made up in their minds and yet it so deeply mimics the real thing that it’s easy to forget that it’s all an illusion. The “copy” of the real thing is just as effective as a genuine one here.
A lot of this gets conveyed in Kiarostami’s camerawork. Most of the film is shot in long, static takes of characters’ faces. This allows every tiny expression to be seen and gives the viewer ample opportunity to register the complex feelings going through the characters’ minds.
In the background of a lot of the couple’s conversations are bridal parties taking wedding photos. These work as a visual metaphor for the film’s philosophies. A wedding is a symbol of a couple’s love, but a photo shoot is an artificial representation of a situation that isn’t actually happening — most people are smiling in pictures to look happy, not because they’re actually happy. So right behind the relationship that Binoche’s character has with James, there is a symbol of both real love and artificial replication. It’s an extra layer to an enigmatic and thought−provoking film about love and imitations.