Why 'Certified Copy' is pure Kiarostami

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‘Certified Copy’ won Juliette Binoche Best Actress at Cannes, but it also provoked accusations that its award-winning director, Abbas Kiarostami, had gone mainstream. Nonsense, says Geoff Andrew

While it’s true that the sunny Tuscan setting, the focus on a potentially sexual relationship and, particularly, the presence of Juliette Binoche probably make ‘Certified CopyAbbas Kiarostami’s most ‘commercial’ movie to date, in no way has this brilliant director sold out. Notwithstanding fatuous descriptions of the film as a ‘romantic comedy’ (yes, it’s often funny and does touch on attitudes towards love, but, no, it can’t and shouldn’t be tied down by such tidy typification), the Iranian maestro’s beguiling account of a day in the life of an English writer (William Shimell) and a French antiques-gallery owner (Binoche) is clearly the work of the same poet, photographer and artist who gave us cinematic gems as diverse as ‘Where Is the Friend’s House?’, ‘Homework’, ‘Close-Up’, ‘A Taste of Cherry’, ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’, ‘10’, and ‘Five’.

Kiarostami himself has said, ‘Every one of my films gives birth to another,’ and, while his latest may at first seem worlds away from his recent highly experimental forays into low-budget digital filmmaking, it’s worth remembering that its immediate predecessor, ‘Shirin’, not only boasted a brief cameo by Binoche but was a love story… of sorts. However, it would be wrong to think that the similarities end there; as with any of his films – and, indeed, his photos, poems, installations and staging of ‘Così Fan Tutte’ – though ‘Certified Copy’ is wholly comprehensible and enjoyable as an individual artefact, it’s even richer and more resonant if considered in relation to the filmmaker’s past work.

Newcomers to Kiarostami’s world, for example, may find it odd that they emerge from ‘Certified Copy’ feeling they know less (rather than more) about the precise nature of the relationship between the man and the woman in the film than they did during its first half-hour. That’s because Kiarostami has long adhered to his own special uncertainty principle. No believer in a single objective reality, he knows that – for filmmakers, at least – it’s often necessary to tell lies in order to get closer to what might be termed ‘the truth’. He also prefers not to tell ‘the whole story’, inviting us to fill in any gaps ourselves, to engage with a film (or photo, poem or whatever) as active rather than passive individuals, equipped with our own personalities, memories and imaginations. He likes ambiguity, and disputes the notion that a film must be understood. ‘Do we understand a piece of music, a painting or the exact meaning of a poem?’

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Not that his films are ‘difficult’ or ‘obscure’. But one does sense that what we are not seeing or hearing may somehow be as significant as what is shown or said; Kiarostami loves unusually open endings, meandering narrative digressions, moments that other filmmakers might consider ‘dead time’, and things happening off-screen. All these turn up in the allegedly more ‘conventional’ new film; clearly there’s more to the writer and the gallery owner than we see and hear. What they say may not be true; we witness only what passes between them during (bits of) a single day in Tuscany; we should remember too that they may not know themselves very well. But there’s more than enough in what we do get to see and hear to stimulate our interest, our imaginations and our emotions. As with the late Eric Rohmer, while Kiarostami pays enormous attention both to the formal qualities and the philosophical implications of his films, his primary interest is always in people, be it his characters, his actors or his audience. (No wonder Michael Haneke, who also carefully considers the ethics of his relationship to the viewer, rates Kiarostami the finest filmmaker at work today.)

Does all this sound too abstract? If so, let’s get more specific about why ‘Certified Copy’ is pure Kiarostami. It boasts a long conversation taking place during a car journey (a feature of most of his films since 1989’s ‘Close-Up’); it has a chatty, perhaps unwittingly influential female café proprietor (think back to ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’), interesting business with mobile phones (think ‘The Wind…’ and the extraordinary episode in ‘Tickets’), allusions to trees (pretty much passim) and much play with point of view, both literal and metaphorical. It’s not just about reflections, frames within frames and the actors’ gaze; it’s also a matter of whom we believe or sympathise with at any one moment in the film. Kiarostami repeatedly undermines our assumptions by subtly shifting our perspective on the zigzagging male-female encounter – something he was already doing in his very first short, ‘Bread and Alley’ (1970), at the end of which we’re left wondering whether our prime allegiance should be to the film’s young protagonist, to another boy glimpsed for a few seconds only or to a menacingly barking mutt that may in fact be a harmless, hungry stray.

The same shifts can be found in one of Kiarostami’s haiku-like poems: ‘How merciful/That the turtle doesn’t see/The little bird’s effortless flight.’ As ever in his work, simplicity allows for complexity. Whatever certain critics try to tell you, ‘Certified Copy’ is more – far more – than a genre film. It’s not even trying to be a copy of a rom-com. It’s merely an original.

Read our review of ‘Certified Copy

Author: Geoff Andrew



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