Directed By Abbas Kiarostami
When the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami last appeared at the New York Film Festival, his film had about five camera set ups, one location, and mixed somewhere between reality and drama, all which made Ten one of the most brilliant films of the decade. Now we have Certified Copy, which stars Juliette Binchoe, is shot in one of the most gorgeous areas in Italy, and Mr. Kiarostami moves all and around it. Has he finally caved in?
Hardly, or not even a bit, though he has made something extremely risky and very unique, a mystery film with his strongest narrative to date and full of gripping emotion, yet at the same time, full of philosophical ideas, lingering questions, and shots that can be debated for months. Mr. Kiarostami may be working outside his home country, but we are really in his playground. Certified Copy is an exploration of perspective more than anything: who’s do we see? What are we paying attention to? And does it matter what it represents in the end?
The film is a sort of a bait and switch; it begins at a lecture in Tuscany, where James Miller, played by British opera singer William Shimell, talks about his book on the nature of copies of precious works of art. In the audience is Elle (Ms. Binoche), who doesn’t seem to listen to his words, but seems to set up a date with him, despite protests by her son. The two take off to a small town in outer Tuscany, where they begin talking about his book, the nature of being smart, and other small things.
And then the film becomes something different. The two stop playing “getting-to-know-you” and start acting like something else. Or are they acting? And thus Mr. Kiarostami, not one to ever play straight as us, gives us a mystery wrapped in a romantic drama, and keeps us on our heels the entire time. We want to fall into the drama, but he pulls us out every so often. We wonder why we are following these two people, yet listen to their every word.
Of course, it’s hard not to deny the power of the film when Ms. Binoche and Mr. Shimell are spectacular at their roles. They go through every emotion: excited, happy, curious, angry, frustrated, morose, longing, dire, and more. They keep us invested in a film that I’m not sure Mr. Kiarostami wants us to be invested on in a basic level, as he seems to be aiming for something higher and grander. Ms. Binoche, as always, particularly takes off. When James gives a speech about seeing a mother and child at the statue of David, Ms. Binoche lets out a single tear, that literally launches the entire film from there. Is it a recollection, or a memory? Mr. Kiarostami doesn’t allow us to truly know, but I’m not sure the film would retain its power if it does.
The beauty of the actors is often put through Mr. Kiarostami’s most scrutinizing directorial vision he’s created. While he is flexible with his camera, he often puts Ms. Binoche front and center, staring right at us, while Mr. Shimmel stares just off to the side. Is she waving at us, telling us we’re being conned? Or is it something real, and should we care?
In the end, Mr. Kiarostami is asking us to look at the perspectives we bring not only to our vision of art, but to our vision of life. Early in the film, Elle takes David to a small museum that proudly shows off a forged copy of a part of a Roman temple, just because it is as beautiful as the original. In one way, we may scoff at the idea, but Certified Copy is all about what we are seeing when we look. Do we see a woman living a fantasy, or a wife for fifteen years? Do we play along with our stories, or do we recreate ourselves for an illusion that can feel just as real? Mr. Kiarostami, always wanting to play with the illusion of cinema, will always look through the camera and imagine that the whole world is inside that frame, as long as he can.