David Reviews Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy [Criterion Blu-Ray Review]

With a lot of Abbas Kiarostami buzz in the air these days (mainly due to his latest feature Like Someone in Love playing at the New York Film Festival, with the director himself working the publicity circuit as well), I suppose this is a good time to get in on the chatter with a long overdue review of his previous title, Certified Copy. Last May, Criterion issued the film on DVD/Blu-ray, a relief to many fans who were at one time discouraged from believing that such a moment would ever come to pass. As reported on this site in April 2011, an offhand comment by Criterion executive Peter Becker opining that he regarded Certified Copy as ‘minor Kiarostami’ was taken to imply that the company wasn’t going to pick up the home video option made possible by their close relationship with IFC. Whether Becker revisited the film and found a new appreciation for its beguiling relational head trip, or simply saw that Certified Copy earned the biggest North American box office of Kiarostami’s career, we can be thankful for the opportunity to not only revisit and examine the film’s brilliantly constructed puzzle to our heart’s content – we also get to  enjoy the impeccable acting of Juliette Binoche, the gorgeous Tuscan setting and the usual brilliant hi-def transfer, along with an illuminating sidebar of supplements that draw us ever further into Kiarostami’s stimulating but ultimately irresolvable web of emotional intrigues.

Now I mention that my review is well past its due date. There are a few reasons for my tardiness that I won’t go into here, but the one I will divulge is that it’s taken me some time to mentally construct my argument on behalf of the film. Rehashing the plot, which I assume is probably familiar to most readers here, seems pointless, and if you haven’t seen it, I think it’s best knowing as little about the narrative developments as possible going in. Maybe this summary is sufficient for the novice: A man (art critic, self-absorbed intellectual type) and a woman (antique dealer, also intellectual but more emotionally vulnerable and frustrated) have a series of dialogues over the course of a day spent together that touch on themes of art and aesthetics to begin with, before ultimately boiling down to a confrontation of classic gender-based conflicts and sensibilities. The power of the film resides in the viewer’s’ability to relate life experience to the exquisite artifice that Kiarostami, Binoche, co-star William Shimmell and the production crew construct for us on screen. So if you’re checking out this review to see if this is a disc worth owning or a film worth seeing, I offer a hearty YES in response to both inquiries.For a taste of what’s in store, here’s the authentically genuine trailer to Certified Copy:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nM_8TPLMCOU&version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0]

So, forbidding myself the reviewer’s privilege of filling in a few hundred words or more by simply summarizing the plot, instead I share this simple visual model. I made it to illustrate my hypothesis that Certified Copy functions as a bright spinning object (deceptively clad in a drab, grey package), poised in mid-air at an intersecting point of balance between the gravitational fields exerted by three sets of poles in tension with each other, first put in place by the film’s creators, and energized by the attentive contributions of its audience. An explanation follows the diagram itself.


Let’s start by examining the X axis, labeled as such for your convenience. It’s the line that travels between two poles, the first rooting Certified Copy‘s  story in the personal memory of Abbas Kiarostami, as related one evening several years ago to Juliette Binoche as she was visiting her friend and future director at his home in Tehran. Though both of them decline to offer much in the  way of details as to what he specifically recalled on that occasion, they both acknowledge (in separate supplemental interviews included on this disc) that the film had its origin in that very conversation, after Binoche, to Kiarostami’s surprise, affirmed that she saw the foundation of a good movie in that account. So we can confidently assert that Certified Copy is based on something that actually happened, though Kiarostami insists that the final product that we see on screen has been significantly fictionalized to the point where it would be a mistake to interpret the film as some kind of autobiographical account. Still, by their very nature, most auteurist-style films are at least tangentially rooted in their creators’ individual experience of life, even if set in remote periods of history or in purely imaginary space-time settings. Thus it is hardly a surprise to discover that Certified Copy hovers in a limbo between remembered actuality and pure “making it up from thin air.” Indeed, it rests precisely in the middle between those two points.

The Y axis, as referenced above, again positions Certified Copy exactly in between the pinnacle of abstractly idealized High Art, an idealized Object to be Contemplated and approached only on the humblest of terms, and broad, might I even say  vulgar, concessions on the part of Kiarostami et al. that allow semi-civilized plebians to gain access to the exalted fruits of their artistic mastery. The technical merits of the piece hardly require any amplification on my part; the cinematography, the landscapes, the effusion of painting and sculpture and architecture on display, the meticulous habitation of each actor in his or her respective character, all results in a convincing verisimilitude that ultimately tricks us into believing that we’re watching real people work through similar complications of life that we experience as a result of the conflicted pursuit of our hearts desires at the expense of ignoring the needs of those nearest and dearest to us – until we are violently jolted out of our daydreaming cinematic reverie by Kiarostami’s subtly blunt reminders, delivered every 7 or 12 minutes or so, that we are indeed WATCHING A MOVIE. Thus infusing meaning of our own creation onto the images that are being projected on to a screen for precisely that very purpose. But once we realize that, we can’t (or at least ought not) forget it.

Finally, we have the Z axis, which renders my otherwise rudimentary conceptualization of Certified Copy‘s overall significance all the more substantial with the addition of a third dimension to consider. This posits a new and crucial dilemma to the audience, as we are forced to make multiple passages through the eye of the historical-fictive needle that Kiarostami smilingly points at us, ready to poke. At the end of the day, are the writer James Miller and the antiques peddler Elle (She, the unnamed woman portrayed by Binoche) actually married to each other or are they a pair of mildly acquainted art aficionados who telepathically conspire to enact a lovers’ quarrel just for kicks? Though the debate among commentators usually focuses on the crucial hinge that opens up when James and Elle finally sit down for coffee at a small cafe, there is plenty of evidence to bolster both cases sprinkled all through the film, and it readily presents itself to us after we take advantage of the repeat viewing opportunities that come from purchasing our own copy of Certified Copy. As a longtime married guy myself, I acknowledge that I side with the camp that says they really are married and were faking it in the first half of the movie (and at a few points in the second as well.) But I don’t consider my opinion conclusive at all.

Higher degrees of enlightenment regarding Kiarostami’s purposes can be attained by studying the interviews found on this disc, but the real treasure among them is The Report. It’s his second feature film, made in 1977 just prior to the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah (and in which the movie’s negative was destroyed.) The film only exists due to one copy being retrieved from the past, a scratched and faded sun-baked video-tape image with burned-in English subtitles, quite a contrast to Certified Copy‘s pristine luminosity. Don’t even expect quality on par with the crisp monochrome of  The Traveler, Kiarostami’s feature debut that was included with Criterion’s Close-Up package a few years back. Besides serving as a fascinating snapshot of an uptight, secularized Iran,  The Report demonstrates that Kiarostami’s interest in filming couples enmeshed in deep-seated, intense psychological sabotage with each other, fueled by profound failures to connect across the male-female chasm, goes way back to the beginning of his career. In The Report, that cross-gender antipathy is exposed with far more brutality than anything we see in Certified Copy’s testy verbal skirmishing. One domestic argument between The Report‘s much younger couple (with their toddler daughter as an unfortunate bystander) is especially intense and  painfully unforgettable.

By way of a side-note for recommended viewing, Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, frequently cited as one of Kiarostami’s key precursors to Certified Copy, just became available to watch on Criterion’s Hulu Plus channel. I hope that points the way to an eventual Blu-ray release, but in the meantime, it’s nice to have the film so conveniently at hand. The similarities are immediately apparent: an British husband and French wife entangled in mutual bitterness and alienation, multilingual fluency, the privileged, culturally refined Italian setting, with plentiful allowance of each director’s penchant for philosophically nuanced conversation. There’s even a curious, perhaps meaningless literary allusion in the  surnames of the male protagonists in each: Joyce in Voyage to Italy, Miller in Certified Copy. James Joyce and Henry Miller were, of course, two celebrated modernist writers who each had to endure sensational battles with censors. I may be stretching the analogy here… One snippet of dialog that jumped out at me from Voyage made me laugh.  The context is a glum recognition by the couple that after eight years of marriage, spent largely doing their separate high society thing, they really don’t know each other or have all that much in common… not all that different than the situation described by James and Elle as they peel back the layers of grievance that camouflage their true memories.

Alex Joyce: Since we’re two strangers, we can start over again. It could be fun, don’t you think?

Katherine Joyce: Let’s go to the bar.

Seems like that could be the launching point for a pretty good movie.

Buy the DVD at Amazon.com

Buy the Blu-ray at Amazon.com