“That was the most boring movie I’ve ever seen in my life. I mean, what was the point?” This comment came from the row behind me as soon as the credits rolled on Abbas Kiarostami’s new film Certified Copy, the two ladies in that row clearly disappointed with the experience they’d just had. I don’t quote them to belittle them, but because the act of perception and the way it modifies the value of things, especially art but not exclusively, is all tied up with what Kiarostami is doing in this film. These ladies perceived the film as boring and pointless, and thus it has little value for them – many are likely to feel the same way, especially as it’s being marketed as sort of a midlife travelogue romance, and while it definitely has elements of that, it’s really doing something far different and going about it in a distinctly art film kind of way.
The first half of the film plays something like an essay, as James (the author of a book about art, positing that a copy is just as good as the original) and the unnamed female character (most critics are calling her Elle, for convenience) wander around Italy discussing the ideas in his book. His original title for the book, before the publishers chose Certified Copy (or the more evocative Copie conforme in the Italian translation he is promoting), was Forget the Original, Just Find a Good Copy, and he praises Elle’s sister for being happy with costume jewelry – “it’s not so simple to be simple,” he says, and also invokes Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns to support his argument that art, and the value associated with it, are a matter of perspective. But if the first part of the film is laying out the theoretical groundwork, the second half deconstructs it and puts it to the test. And if you haven’t seen the film and plan to, you might want to stop reading here – it’s impossible to discuss Certified Copy in any depth without spoiling the turn in the middle. The film is still beautiful and fascinating if you know it ahead of time, but it loses a bit of the delicious wonder as you gradually realize what Kiarostami is up to.
In the center of the film, James steps out of a cafe for a moment and Elle chats with the bartender, who assumes they are married. From what we’ve seen so far in the film, they have just met, brought together by her somewhat skeptical interest in his book. But she goes along with the bartender’s assumption and when James returns and she clues him in, so does he. And throughout the rest of the film, they continue acting (or is it acting?) as if they are husband and wife, falling deeply into these roles (or are they roles?). By the end, you won’t be sure, but trying to figure out whether they’re really strangers pretending to be married or an estranged married couple who pretended to be strangers misses the point, I think. The point is, at what point does their fascimile, their copy of a marriage, become as real as an original marriage.
If, as James suggests in his book, a copy is just as real and valuable as an original, than it doesn’t matter whether they’re married or not, and what they perceive about their relationship is far more important than any inherent value. This is illustrated by a scene shortly after we enter the “marriage” section of the plot, in which they argue over the value of a statue in a square. Here he argues that the statue isn’t worthwhile art based on its construction and workmanship, while she argues that it is because of the way it makes her feel – but we never see the full statue, nor the part of the statue she says makes her love it. All we have to go on are their perceptions.
They basically switch roles here – in the beginning, James was arguing that people should value whatever makes them enjoy life…now he’s unable to enjoy the statue, later he’ll be unable to enjoy a glass of wine. And in the extended monologue Elle has late in the film, she wonders why he can’t enjoy life, and what’s the point if he never listens to her point of view. Perhaps the first half of the film is James’ abstract treatise, while the second half is Elle’s intuitive application of the treatise. Though the film seems to turn from essay into drama, the two halves are really just two different ways of looking at (perceiving) the same theoretical problem. But however you read it, Kiarostami is playing along the edges of reality here anyway, and it’s not necessarily clear that these are even the same characters in any real way.
Jim Emerson has a great piece up about the film, tying in to several other articles around the web, pointing out that the film doesn’t follow standard narrative logic, nor is it a puzzle film with an answer to the mystery of these characters’ relationship hidden somewhere if we work hard enough to tease it out. Rather, all the relationships are true (or at least possible) at the same time – they are both strangers and spouses, both meeting for the first time and meeting again. There’s a definite echo of Last Year at Marienbad here, and Kiarostami is in fact unequivocally copying European art styles of the 1950s and 1960s. Seems fair for a film about art and copies, yes?
Ultimately, many people are going to want an answer to the relationship question, though. That’s what we expect from narratives. Something to latch on to about these characters that’s true and meaningful. Otherwise, what’s the point? But James explicitly states during a visit to an art gallery that a portrait, even an original, is only a copy of real life. The Mona Lisa is merely a copy of La Giaconda, so why do we value the original Mona Lisa more than an equally beautiful copy? Kiarostami is asking the same thing with his film – why do we care whether James and Elle are really married or faking it? Why do we care if their characters in the second half are really the same as they are in the first? After all, even if their marriage is real within the film, it’s only a copy of a real-life marriage, just as the characters are not real outside the film at all. All art is a copy, Kiarostami’s film says. Whether we agree with his statement or not is up to us (whether he does is another question, as James himself states he wrote the book to convince himself of his own thesis). But he’s certainly laid out his terms and deconstructed and reconstructed them in a fascinating and eminently thoughtful way. I could go on about Juliette Binoche’s lovely and subtle performance, or the beautiful evocation of rural Italy, or the fascinating ways Kiarostami uses the camera and editing to establish relationships, or the rather tongue-in-cheek ways he parallels the main story with the antics of the surrounding village, but I won’t. Those things are here as well to make the experience as enjoyable as it is baffling, and much more humorous than you might expect.