Public Options: “Certified Copy” at BAM

Posted by Nick Curley

Certified Copy
directed by Abbas Kiarostami
France, 106 mins.

The Italian translation of the new book by psych-laden art critic James Miller (baritone opera star William Shimell, showing staggering poise in his first film role), Copie Conforme (trans: Certified Copy), is built like a slab of lead.  His text is all Helvetica, gray aesthete for gray matter: sleek and sophisticated, it wouldn’t be out of place in Vol. 1’s recurring “Book Porn” feature.  Standing before a decent crowd at a reading in Tuscany, Miller’s false modesty doesn’t keep him from getting off on his own excellence.   Italian interest in the book cushions the blow of tepid reviews in Miller’s native Britain, causing James to compare himself to Michelangelo and Da Vinci.  His editor has insisted he give the book a flashy subtitle, and so he’s settled on “Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy”.  It’s Miller’s assertion that all art is a reformatting of works that have come before it, thereby rendering our perceived difference in valuation between originals and imitations moot.  Yet he himself confesses early that he needs convincing of his own idea.  And damn, do the next ninety minutes offer a crash course in the mysterious power of artifice.

His guide, siren, and sometime tormentor is Elle, as played by Juliette Binoche in what may go down as her motherfucking prime.  At first we’re to believe Elle is wishy-washy on James: when asked by her son why she’s getting Miller to sign copies of the book for a dull acquaintance, she replies that “I want to give a book I dislike to a man I dislike.”  Binoche is gorgeous, perhaps moreso at 47 than ever before, augmented in each frame by her stellar control of her face, and its ability to shift emotions radically on a dime.  Meeting for seemingly the first time after giving her number to Miller’s translator, Elle drives James to the village of Lucignano, a town famous for wedding young couples and granting marriages good fortune.  Elle and James bicker in ways comedic and bittersweet, learning about each other through a series of tongue-tied misunderstandings.

Yet the film shifts dramatically when the duo stop for coffee, only to have the café owner privately tell Elle that James seems like a good husband.  Elle plays along, telling the woman that she and James are celebrating their fifteenth wedding anniversary.  Quite shrewdly, like an unseen inoculation slung into the filmgoer’s arm, this pair of manic cranks begin to speak very differently to one another.  They start to embody the causes of one another’s grousing, rapture, unhappiness, hope, and misfortune.  In short, they collaborate on an afternoon that we can identify neither as a forgery nor the genuine article.  The result is cryptic, thoroughly engaging to watch, and best left unspoiled here.  Caveat emptor: you won’t have trouble finding other reviews that spill the beans.

Through it all, kindness is never forgotten.  Binoche is by turns endlessly charming, in pursuit of tenderness despite her frustrated temper.  From the beginning we have a murky sense of her tenuous grasp on the structured world.  Her intense sensitivity towards Miller’s every word often leaves Shimell with the bewilderment of a Stewart/Grant-era Hitchcock “man accused”.  Many of the film’s peaks rely on mutations of Binoche’s face and voice from one emotional register to the next.  The film’s great skill is taking her character, so casually stunning in peasant dresses and suggestive smirks, and flipping her into a dark and intimidating menace fit to throw all of Miller’s morose bollocks back at him.

Certified Copy’s dialect is unique, a pastiche of spliced languages.  This is Iranian director Kiarostami’s first film in a career of thirty-five features wherein he’s removed from his native tongue.  Italian natives corral the landscapes like Greek choruses, engaging the French heroine, who’s churning out some pretty fluent English to cater to her British co-star, who squrims and mimics his way through a humbling mix of all of the above.  Here Kiarostami’s best stylistic staples are refracted through the lens of Italian romanticism.  Intense head-on framing of faces delivering monologues into the camera.  Long rides down narrow roads in cramped cars.  An attempt to sort the verifiable from the unreal that results in a hybridization of the two.

Ultimately, this is a movie that asks what the harm is admiring illusions, and playing certain roles for one another.  When can we compromise, Kiarostami wonders, and when must we deprive others of their wants?  In between we get some breathtaking shots of doubling reflections, the most picturesque and beautiful being the nervous bride who takes Shimell’s seat after he stands up and exits a church brimming with newlyweds.  These are refractions of role play as thrilling as Kiarostami’s courtroom drama of his masterpiece-to-date, 1990’s Close Up.  By the film’s third act, church bells begin to eerily clang, leaving us to wonder about the space that exists between the sound we heard and its haunting, delayed echo.  Between what we (think we) know to be true and what lingers afterward.  That staggering reverb is not unlike the strange sensation of traveling to a new locale and imagining yourself as someone entirely different, with a wholly new identity, or simply granted an ability to forget the past.  We can be someone else by being elsewhere, especially in the company of someone who’s craving escape as badly as we are.  Such were my pen’s scratches at 7pm last night when the lights at BAM Rose came up.  From out of the darkness I was me again, sitting amidst a midweek crowd of decrepit spouses who apologize when they graze hands.