Nov 15, 2010

Review: Certified Copy

Certified Copy
Year: 2010
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Juliette Binoche, William Shimmel

If you look into Kiarostami’s oeuvre, you’ll find more than a few of films about coming to terms with one's self. His characters are often on a journey, one of self-discovery or of, simply, discovery. And his visual and thematic tropes have come to be recognizable instantly: the importance of cars (quite literally manifesting the journey), the long takes, the poetic absence of music. And the thematic common ground is the change of perception; not just our perception of the characters, but their perception of themselves and each other. In that regard, Certified Copy is no different than any of his last films. 

Abbas Kiarostami’s first film made outside of Iran, is about a French art gallery owner (Juliette Binoche) in Italy, who meets a British author (William Shimmel) on tour in Italy to promote his latest book - aptly titled “Certified Copy”. The two of them decide to take a ride around the beautiful and sunny scenery of Tuscany in her car. When they’re once mistaken for a couple by a cafe owner, the story takes an interesting turn, despite the nature of their relationship being kept ambiguous. When they stroll into role-play, we’re left wondering whether their relationship is real, or a copy.

Despite Kiarostami's usual scepticism, Certified Copy is a lot lighter and warmer than his earlier films; and in that, in my opinion, lies the strength of the film. The detractors of his previous films - a group in which I certainly cannot include myself - have always complained about the characters being inaccessible and despite my disagreement, I can see where they come from. In Certified Copy, however, the themes are universal. Whereas sympathizing with Taste of Cherry’s Mr. Badii can be difficult because we don’t know his past and his intent, Binoche’s character is easy to understand; even though we’re not aware of her past, her emotions ring true. Where Behzad’s arrogant and cold attitude doesn’t allow the audience to share his concerns in Wind Will Carry Us, James’ snobby manner only makes him more authentic.

One of the many things that make this film great is its simplicity. Like in much of his previous work, Kiarostami chooses a minimalistic approach to cinematography and art decoration. The handheld camera gives the film a fluid feel that harmonizes beautifully with the dynamic of the central relationship, while maintaining Kiarostami’s typical lingering close-ups. So does the set design or rather, set selection, which exaggerates the gentle fragility of Binoche’s character.

Juliette Binoche’s performance, that won her a well-deserved Cannes Best Actress trophy, is probably her career’s finest work. If authenticity is a factor, then she scores full points by all accounts. She’s just as great a frustrated mother as she is a passionate lover, and just as good a distressed sister as she is a tortured wife. William Shimmel, on the other hand, is not as completely immersed in the character as Binoche is; but his theatrical stiffness and his impenetrable manner fir the character just as well. To an extent, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else as James.   

Certified Copy is a really hard film to write about though; not just because of the possible threat of spoilers, but because its narrative unfolds so delicately that makes the film a unique experience. It really has to be watched so it can be understood on a personal level. 

Grade: B+

*While editing this post, I noticed that I’ve stepped into the comparison zone one too many times. The truth is, it’s not difficult to identify this as a Kiarostami film, even if you don’t know he made it before going to the theatre. It bears a strong stylistic, and to a lesser extent, thematic resemblance to his previous works; and I say that as a compliment. I consider myself a big fan of his work and any new film by him is a real event for me, especially now that it has come 8 years after his last.

If you ask me, Certified Copy is the third best film he’s directed, after Taste of Cherry and Ten; although on a different day, I might say that I like Where is the Friend's Home? more. But I still believe that his best work to date is his screenplay for the Jafar Panahi-directed masterpiece The White Balloon. That’s a story for another day though.