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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Elle (Juliette Binoche) pretties herself in a Tuscany restroom in Certified Copy.

4 Stars

Look up the term “art house film” in the movie dictionary, and you ought to find a still from Abbas Kiarostami’s Copie Conforme (Certified Copy). It’s a confounding, but wholly engrossing picture that clearly and thoughtfully meditates on questions relating to reality and perception. Though the director (who also penned the screenplay) frames much of this discussion in the world of art, the question at the core of the film is whether absolute certainty really exists, or if beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. What’s fascinating about the film is the way Kiarostami poses this question. Nearly everything—including the relationship of the main characters—is presented in an open-ended fashion. That’s certainly not going to appeal to everyone, but those with an open mind and a little patience will be rewarded handsomely, for Certified Copy is the first great film of 2011.

It’s hard to get into the details of the film’s plot without giving some key events away, so those who want to go in totally fresh would be best advised to stop reading here. Our two main characters are Elle (Juliette Binoche) and James (newcomer William Shimmel). The former is an antique collector, shop owner, and mother, while the latter is a British author in Tuscany to promote his latest novel about the art and the idea that a copy can be just as beautiful as an original piece of work. Elle is a fan, so she asks James on a day trip to a nearby village. There, the two discuss (sometimes quite heatedly) their differences in opinion on art, love, happiness, and host of other philosophical questions.

From there, the film takes a very sudden turn. After a woman mistakes James and Elle for a married couple, they become one. Fifteen years after taking their vows, the love is all but gone. They fight—over his absence and her demanding nature—while they try to discover what went wrong and if the spark can be lit in their relationship once again.

Kiarostami offers no clear answer as to which half of the film is reality. Are these characters potential lovers with strong opinions on what they know and what they love? Or are they husband and wife on the brink of a marital collapse? Perhaps both, neither? Who knows? Frankly, I was less interested in putting the pieces of the puzzle together than I was in admiring how everything was assembled. In virtually every scene, we see something that makes us question what’s really happening: Is a man yelling at his wife, or is he yelling at something else entirely? Perhaps both, neither? Ultimately, what Kiarostami is saying is that perception is reality. If you perceive a copy to be a genuine work of art, who’s to say that it isn’t? If you find pleasure in leading a simple, quiet life, who’s to judge you? Hell, if you have a great time watching Transformers 2, who’s to say it’s not a good movie. OK, the latter wasn’t touched upon by Kiarostami, but the logic still applies.

I can’t emphasize enough just how much I admire what Kiarostami accomplishes here. Not only does he present this devilishly complex thesis with clarity and precision, he also does so in with the style of a true auteur. Every shot is thoughtfully composed, and he employs a number of unique and visually stunning methods—mirrors as reflective framing devices, extra-long takes, extreme close-ups, and other characters as photographic focal points. The cinematography, among many other aspects of the film, is awards-worthy for sure, and I do not believe it’s hyperbole to say Kiarostami’s direction as assured and impressive as anything I’ve seen in years (Julian Schnabel’s work on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly comes to mind as the most recent example of such outstanding work).

Also impressive are the two performances from the film’s leads. Juliette Binoche speaks three languages over the course of the film, yet some of her most affecting moments are unspoken—when she admires a pair of newlyweds after a particularly brutal fight with James, when she desperately tries to make herself beautiful for him in the bathroom of a restaurant. It’s probably not the kind of work that will get her noticed at the Oscars next year, but the Best Actress award at Cannes last year was very well-deserved. William Shimmel is also quite good, in what’s definitely a less showy role. The two individuals play off each other quite well, especially in the film’s first half. It’s in the second half that they up the emotional ante, but the nuance on display early is what sells the film’s ambiguity.

Typically, films that question reality fall into the science-fiction genre—Inception, The Matrix, etc. Certified Copy is a whole different animal that feels a lot more like Before Sunrise than Christopher Nolan’s or The Wachowski Brothers’ film. The setting is gorgeous, the dialogue is smart and sharp, and the direction is out-of-this-world. Though my expectations were sky high, Certified Copy still managed to exceed them, and it’s pretty safe to say that it will be at or near the top of my Best of 2011 list at year’s end.


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