“You play the loving woman, I play the faithful man…”
--Bruce Springsteen, “Brilliant Disguise”
“There's nothing more cinematic than the sight of a man and a woman talking at 3 a.m. in the dark night of the soul.”
--attributed to Andrew Sarris
This is the first film this year that I’ve had to go back and see a second time at the theater. It’s Abbas Kiarostami’s first feature made outside of Iran, and he’s got something really fascinating here, something of tremendous emotional power. It felt very personal to me, as though I were watching the stages of my own failed marriage reflected in the single afternoon that two people spend walking around a little Tuscan village, seeming to morph from strangers into an old married couple before our eyes.
An Englishman named James (William Shimell) has come to Arezzo, Tuscany to talk about his controversial new book, which argues that a good copy of a painting or a sculpture is no less a “real” work of art than the original, if it gives just as much pleasure (and he believes that pleasure is the point of life). He strikes me as a wise man, wearing lightly his wealth of interesting ideas about art and life. He meets a Frenchwoman (Binoche), the proprietor of a local shop full of artifacts, sculpture and the like. She had briefly attended his lecture, and while she bought multiple copies of his book, she makes it clear that his thesis annoys her. Nonetheless, she is thrilled (and nervous) to be hosting him.
She drives him out to see a little town called Luciagno. They stop for a cup of coffee. Now, for some time their conversation has carried overtones which seem just slightly off for banter amongst strangers. As James steps out to take a call, their elderly hostess strikes up an amusing discussion with Binoche about her “husband.” Binoche rolls with it, and when her conversation with James resumes we watch, disoriented, as they take on the roles of a married couple who’ve just marked their 15th anniversary, fighting like only people do for whom love itself is at stake. Are they role-playing? Part of our disorientation comes from just how intense Binoche is. No way is she playing a game. It’s too “real”. (But of course this is itself just an illusion created by a brilliant actress.)
To what extent do a couple play roles with each other? James, hungry and fed up with the contentious Binoche, gives himself over to a snit at a trattoria. The first time I saw it I found that scene curious. It seems to be the only time in the picture when Shimell (in real life an opera baritone), so natural throughout the rest of the picture, seemed visibly to be acting (that is to say, role-playing). Seeing it again, it occurred to me that perhaps Kiarostami gave him that direction, as a way to keep the audience guessing. In any case, I saw myself in James’s peak of pique. At one point Binoche tells him that she knows he hates her, and maybe in that moment he does. But later, as he watches her sit down on some steps and rub her sore feet, I recognized that moment, too. I knew what he was feeling then: remorse, compassion…and love.
“Certified Copy” is a film bursting with ideas and feeling. It’s about the interplay and fluidity, in art and life, of perception, identity, mortality, reproduction, time. Throughout the movie we see people and things reflected on “screens” such as mirrors and windshields. If, like James and Binoche in this movie, we would go looking for the original, the “real you” in that hall of mirrors, it is because we know that the original is the one that contains the heart, the heart that—once upon a time, and still—we love.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)