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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

Waves of cynicism from various Cannes 2010 dispatches suggested that Kiarostami had, following a solid decade of increasingly (even for him) non-commercial, avant-garde video work, gone off the shallow end with a light, pan-European truffle, a tri-lingual romantic comedy, an audience-pleasing travelogue, a star vehicle, and - for the cinephile demographic - a collage of better-known art-house tent-poles, including Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy, Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad, and Richard Linklater's Before Sunset.

To be sure, Certified Copy bears a striking resemblance to those films. Like the Rossellini, both James (renowned operatic baritone William Shimell, here making his film debut) and the woman (Juliette Binoche, who needs no introduction) are two members of their respective country's privileged class (such as these classes continue to subsist in the recessed, post-2007 global economy) whose interpersonal discord reaches a critical mass against the backdrop of scenic Italy (Naples and Pompeii in Voyage; Tuscany in Copy); like the Resnais, Kiarostami (whose original story was adapted for the film by Massouumeh Lahidji) constructs a cryptic hybrid of mystery story and romantic melodrama, with unanswered questions regarding what's to be taken at face value, and what's to be taken as fiction, game-playing, or flat-out lies. As with the Linklater, there is an undeniably light touch that is counterbalanced - or, at times, knocked out of balance - by the welling up of animosity and stored-up resentments, and the film closes without indicating if the couple has or hasn't consummated (or rekindled) their love affair.

In his review, Richard Porton also invokes another cinematic touchstone: Howard Hawks. In particular, Bringing Up Baby. Hawks's film is one of the most prickly of the subgenre of the "screwball comedy." Hawks (with writers Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde) sources the turbulence (not just in the relationship but in the plot, as well) to the zany heroine (Susan Vance), but also studies the resistance efforts of the put-upon hero (Dr. David Huxley). Studies - with a strong sense of empathy. Binoche's character, like Delpy's in Linklater's film, does seem at least a little bit Vance-like. (Although Binoche, whose English-language accent sounds pinched and vaguely hysterical, like one of Meryl Streep's more tightly-wound WASPs, or - on a down beat - Christine Lahti in Housekeeping, is very much her own breed of eccentric.)

Still, although Certified Copy broaches the cosmic in a spirit that is closest to Resnais and Rossellini's two masterpieces (of which only one was, to an extent, recognized as such upon its arrival; Kiarostami seems less unlucky, in that regard, at least), the film wouldn't be much if it was just a collection of references, or riffs, on its cinematic ancestry. Part of Kiarostami's commentary concerns tourism, and (shooting Tuscany in gorgeous, high-definition, Red digital video) he doesn't recuse himself in satirizing the escapist, "tell a story with ourselves as the heroes" impulse applicable to all manner of expatriates and dual-citizens, colonists and conquerors, and other strangers in a strange land; he'd likely be the first to admit that he was a stranger there (in Tuscany) himself.

In remarking on Shimell's performance, calling it "wooden" and "opaque," Porton suggests that these attributes, objectively negative under normal circumstances, suggest that James is a void, a cipher, a blank screen, upon and into which Binoche's character projects her fantasy of rescuing/revitalizing an overripe, middle-aged marriage. Setting aside for a moment that I don't share Porton's characterization of Shimell's debut - of noble visage and voice, he aquits himself more than honorably - it is significant to Kiarostami's body of work that the reverse is also true, as the heroine of Certified Copy, like the one hundred and fourteen women in his previous feature, Shirin, or the driver in Ten, she is not given a name. Perhaps she's the blank slate, too.

Kiarostami's sympathy for what seems to be all of the women in the world, a thematic focus he has been expanding since Ten (and which reaches its peak in Shirin, and which is a recurring theme in contemporary Iranian cinema in general), is expressed not in depicting their political subjugation in Islamic society, or any society (thus setting himself apart from the Mizoguchis and Panahis), but in upsetting the normal expectations of denying women any dominant tools: their gaze, their memory, their role in relationships. In the first few scenes, Binoche's character is shown to be at odds with her teenage son, a relentless nag who, when he's not buried in his handheld game system, jabs his mother with caustic commentary and nosy questions, cynically claiming for his alibi, "You said we're buddies and we have no secrets." Shortly after he departs and the Shimell-Binoche travelogue begins, it becomes clear where the brat got his manners from - she even confesses, proudly, to being nosy and a tireless interrogator. The patterns of male behavior, Kiarostami theorizes, are cut from female cloth: a reversal of traditional movie expectations, where the son-becomes-his-father narrative tends to be the dominant one, or the only one.

It can be argued that She/Elle is piloting the couple's (geographical, narrative, emotional) journey, as well, and the wonderful scene between Binoche and the cafe owner (Gianna Giachetti, a veteran of Italian television) reinforces the idea that the movie crosses a certain border at that point, after which the female gaze "takes over." The two confide in each other their differing philosophies. (At a key moment, the owner, who's much older, whispers something to Binoche that we don't hear). If this was one of Rivette's mystical tales of sun and moon goddesses, it would be Endsville for James, and Her show from that point forward. A seductive idea, certainly, but not much of a horse in this race. Unlike the Hawks classic, or Rivette's Duelle, the author James is not comically victimized or (a favorite of film theorists) "castrated" in any meaningful way, and if anyone is working on a dinosaur skeleton in this picture, it's Binoche, with her shopful of "originals and copies."

"Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere."
- Madeleine (Kim Novak), Vertigo

This axiom, stated by the false Madeleine (the ultimate certified copy, as far as the cinema is concerned), is proved and disproved by Shimell/Binoche as they set off in her little Ford Fiesta, each signaling to the other the desire to go somewhere and nowhere. She drives the car through cavernous, old-world streets. The architecture, reflected in the car's windshield, reframes the adventurers in margins of aging brick and brownstone that cascade across the frame's vertical edge like a film reel. Although the drive is only a prologue to their subsequent journey (which is on foot), they both seem to move from space to space as if they'd placed their hands on a single Ouija board, wrestling for spiritual control but also obeying less obvious, but more powerful, needs and desires.

The core of the film is the "little game" they play, beginning with an uncorrected assumption made by the cafe owner, that they are a married couple. Inspired by the harmless mistake, the two weave in and out of the role-play with no clear demarcations, like skilled dancers, or improv performers. Towards the conclusion, he has perhaps been worn down, and She alone seems to possess the game-memory, the will to invent or to remember.

I've said almost nothing about the film's stunning visuals, which grow more exquisite as the game goes deeper into the shared fiction. By the time Jean-Claude Carriere shows up to offer James some courting advice, the film is bathed in shifting, autumnal lights of the waning side of a dreamy summer afternoon; in the hotel room shortly thereafter, the golden light of the little village makes way for purgatorial shadows, but even as the conclusion is weighted with resignation and despair, the pulse of romanticism, and a certain wry, wistful contemplation, remains strong.

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