Monday, October 04, 2010

The 48th New York Film Festival: Certified Copy

Abbas Kiarostami's
Certified Copy (Copie conforme), the director's first feature-length, non-experimental fiction filmmaking since his 2002 Ten, and his only to date to be shot outside his native Iran, confirms or rather reaffirms the filmmaker's place at the absolute pinnacle of post-1960s international art cinema, through its re-purposing of both the director's own previous forays into the border territory between fact and fiction and also the very European modernist art cinema of which Kiarostami has proven the most notable inheritor.  Recalling foremost Roberto Rossellini's fluid, epochal examination of marital stress and miraculous renewal, Viaggio in Italia (1954), a film whose influence on the director has been crystalline since Kiarostami invented his own moving vehicle idiom in the early 1990s; the early 1960s period work of the former's high modernist countryman and direct artistic descendant, Michelangelo Antonioni; and finally, but certainly not least of all in terms of resemblance, Alain Resnais's parable of uncertainty, Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Certified Copy finds its fiction as Juliette Binoche (as French ex-pat Elle) and William Shimell (as English author James Miller) traverse the country roads and villages of the film's rural Tuscany, inventing a fifteen-year marriage as they ostensibly embark on their first afternoon together.  Unlike as in Resnais's topical source, however, with which the film shares an unclear past, Shimell's Miller does not resist Binoche's fabrication, but instead playacts in his assigned role as inattentive husband and frequently absent father, before being asked to make the intra-film fiction a narrative fact as the couple arrive at the (improvised) site of their "honeymoon."  In keeping with the director's signature technique of constructing unfinished endings, it remains for the spectator to decided whether Binoche and Shimell replace their invented pairing with a real coupling as the film fades to black - in this sense replicating Rossellini's marital restoration - or if instead Shimell shatters the fantasy in order to catch his nine o'clock train.

Certified Copy opens with a static figure-less framing of Shimell's eponymously titled tome propped up on a rectangular table between a set of microphones.  With the din of voices emerging beyond the extremely limited opening frame, Kiarostami immediately constructs a distinctive off-camera field, thereby renewing his most consistent formal obsession.  Following an introduction apologizing for his delay, Shimell's tardy Miller soon appears and thus commences his lecture on the subject of his book, originals and copies (in art), with his thesis favoring the historically neglected latter.  (Miller is a fairly obvious surrogate for Kiarostami in Certified Copy, given the director's own presence as a celebrated visiting auteur.)  Certified Copy accordingly revisits one of Kiarostami's cardinal subjects, namely the difference between real and fake, which documentary-fiction hybrid Close-Up (1990) famously took up for its presentation of the trial of real-life Mohsen Makhmalbaf impersonator Hossain Sabzian. As in Kiarostami's deeply-influential 1990 feature, Certified Copy thus invites the question of what constitutes "art," though its answer will prove less directly relevant to the director's latest than it is for the earlier text.  Here, the subject of real and fake, analogized from the fictional book's treatment of works culled from the visual arts, is displaced ultimately onto the relationship of Elle and James, with the fictional possessing the same transformative power for Elle as it does for Hossain, whose peformative act she replicates in pursuit of her own similarly elusive happiness.

However, it is less Sabzian than Ten's divorced, single-mother taxi driver, Mania Akbari, who provides the more immediate, and indeed initially apparent source for Binoche's Elle (though Elle decidedly lacks the prior feminist heroine's noteworthy strength).  In particular, it is Elle's relationship with her precocious, taunting son (Adrian Moore), a near replica of Ten's Amin, which most clearly evokes the earlier source; in Certified Copy, the video game-distracted tween memorably accuses his mother, much to his own delight, of romantic intentions toward the English author, leading Binoche's character to rush off in great frustration.  Of course, Elle's son proves perceptive in this instance, though it will only be after a grandmotherly restaurateur mistakes James for Elle's husband that the latter will begin to inhabit the role of her companion's long-suffering wife (and in this respect, to acknowledge her romantic interest).  While, the exchange between the older and the younger woman remains comfortably within the register of the white lie, Elle and James's interactions provide the film with its more complex parsing of the real and the fake within the contours of male-female relations, where in the words of film scholar Lisa K. Broad, it is as easy for this new couple to become long-married spouses as it is for them to inhabit the roles that their relationship would conventionally dictate.  That James moreover may have noticed Elle in her daily interactions with her son, and consequently that this may have prompted the book, further suggests a differing level of intimacy than their first afternoon together would typically compel.

Elle's aforesaid exchange in the restaurant notably provides the first of two prompts for her fictional engagement with James: in this case, it leads to their initial rehearsal as husband and wife.  A second sighting of a presumably long-married couple (strolling ahead of them along the village's cobble stoned streets) leads to Elle's consequent identification of a nearby hostel as the location of their 'honeymoon.'  Clearly, the couple reminds the female lead of her loneliness, leading to her fiction-based attempt to remedy her want - in much the same way again that Hossain sought to improve his own circumstances following an initially innocent falsehood.  In the segment that follows to close the film, the viewer is invited not only to complete the picture by deciding the fate of their relationship - the same ultimate choice left to the viewer of the director's supreme masterwork, Through the Olive Trees (1994); then again, Through the Olive Trees offered a clue to Kiarostami's affirmative choice in its use of an upbeat musical accompaniment, whereas Certified Copy seems to lack the tipping of the director's hand, save perhaps for the final allusion to Viaggio in Italia - but also by averring whether or not the pair will copulate.  Indeed, sex moves subtly into the foreground in the director's first non-Iranian fiction feature, having emerged from the deep shadows of Ten, where the driver transports a prostitute whom the viewer thereafter sees in the deep recesses of the frame negotiating her trade.  Binoche's natural, straight-forward sexuality and her intense romantic longing accordingly introduce a new element into Kiarostami's work: sex.

Of course, it is the fact that Certified Copy was shot outside of Iran that allows for this development in his oeuvre (which was again present in socially conscious rather than romantic terms in Ten).  Hence, the director's first attempt at ex-patriot filmmaking yields more than allusions to Kiarostami's sources in Italy and throughout Europe, an appropriate cultural background for his discourse on originals and replications (the Italian peninsula, home to the greatest imitators of Hellenic artistic tradition) and a new set of cypress-covered landscapes, through which his automobile snakes as his couple antagonistically gets to know one another by discussing the philosophy of copies - Certified Copy is in this last sense Richard Linklater redux, with its principles getting off to a very uneasy start.  Europe in the end provides the director with the opportunity to add a new dimension to his body of work that he has handled with customary assurance.  While Kiarostami is by no means the only recent example of an Asian filmmaker plying his trade in Europe - the Iranian follows contemporaries Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang and Hong Sang-soo, among others - the director's Certified Copy is the most achieved of these recent efforts, not simply because it transposes its director's aesthetic (including a near Kuleshovian use of close-up that translates the director's work in Shirin, 2008) and set of concerns in tact, filtering these through an explicit set of appropriate references, which certainly the aforesaid do as well, but because it has permitted its' director to make present what was absent, to construct an even more robust portrait of the world than he already has.  Certified Copy is no minor achievement for one of the medium's greatest masters. 

For the list-lovers among you, here are my choices for Abbas Kiarostami's ten best.


Vahid Mortazavi said...

Hi Michael,
Thanks for your coverage of New York Film Festival.

I'm referring to your review on UNCLE BOONMEE. I expected UNCLE BOONMEE to be the fabulous film (The best of Mr. Joe) – I really like SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY and went to watch UNCLE BOONMEE with highest expectation. I liked it but I need to see it again. After first glace I couldn’t follow film in its final ten minutes, set in an urban hospital (after Boonmee’s death) . It seems to me a kind of unexpected conclusion (anti-conclusion?!). What is your idea about this final 10 minutes? Nevertheless, I hope to re-watch it soon.


Michael J. Anderson said...

Thank you for the comment, Vahid.

My take on the film's final passage is that apropos of the work's strategic return to the director's previous work, the end offers a reproduction of SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY'S urban segment, with the actors reprising their roles from that film (rather than, as in the case of the male lead, his role from TROPICAL MALADY, which he occupies for the rest of the film). The finale likewise offers a paralleled reality that again befits the director's strategies from BLISSFULLY YOURS through SYNDROMES. I suppose one could say that the final section is the most concentrated piece of self-reference in a deeply self-referential film.