Copying the Copy
Warning: Major spoilers about Certified Copy's plot follow.
Kiarostamitown is a place of pleading boys and pleading men, frustrated pleading women, kids smarter than their elders, all hanging on to dream and fantasy, myth and illusion. But it wasn't always so. For many Western viewers the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami emerged sui generis at the 1989 Locarno International Film Festival with Where Is the Friend's House?, a gently melancholic film about a young boy walking for miles to return a friend's homework, then barreled through a string of masterpieces culminating in his new film, Certified Copy, which opens March 11 in New York and Los Angeles. The story of a couple (played by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell) arguing the state of their relationship against a sunny Italian backdrop, has much in common with Kiarostami's earlier landmarks. Like Through the Olive Trees, it focuses on a lover pursuing a distant and unwilling beloved; like Ten, it shows compassion for women suffering because of men; like Close-Up, Shirin, and nearly everything in between, it suggests that everyone is the protagonist in his or her own life, and improvises the part.
Yet to start with Friend's House would be to overlook the preceding 17-year period of rich and generally unavailable films Kiarostami made for Tehran's Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun), both playful classroom lessons stressing the value of good behavior and fictions (like The Wedding Suit) about kids yearning to escape their constricting social structures. Certified Copy, in which a woman tries to talk a man into assuming responsibilities only to have him try to talk his way out of them, has much to do with these films, as well as the only other film Kiarostami has made about an adult romantic couple, 1977's The Report. Their unavailability, while understandable—it's hard enough to find several of the famous films on DVD—deprives scholars and casual viewers alike of the chance to better understand how a major artist developed.
This is especially true when we compare Certified Copy to The Report, in which a harried Ministry of Finance employee debates abandoning his wife and child. The earlier film was made shortly after Kiarostami's own divorce and shortly before the Iranian Revolution, and it was, he later said, "about a revolution inside myself." With its solemn screenwriting and cramped camerawork, The Report isn't a great film, or even an especially good one, but looking at it helps us appreciate Copy's mastery more.
Report and Copy start in similar ways. Report's opening credits scroll up on a typewriter, at which our narrow-shouldered hero will eventually sit, while Copy's appear in front of a lecture platform onto which the male speaker will confidently stride. The emphasis in both cases is on depersonalized work, and the ensuing interior shots that the men enter to work contrast rather sharply with the peopled, lighter and more sensuous worlds outside. The Report character's superior then proceeds to talk loudly on a telephone, embarrassing everyone around him; in Certified Copy, the main character whips out a cell phone a few minutes into his lecture and begins blathering himself. Both cases ignite a mini-social metaphor, in which the practice of work leads men to literally ignore the people in front of them.
"Work is all you do, day and night," the wife in The Report complains to her oft-absent husband, after learning that he must go out again to substitute for a colleague; Binoche's character listens to Shimell's explain how work demands he be away "sometimes" and then declares, "But in your case, it's constant." In both films the woman knows what she's talking about, whether it's The Report's female saying that she stays at home and slaves all day herself or Binoche slapping her hands and declaring how hard it is to raise a child alone. If anything, the latter woman is in even direr straits than the former, whose husband will at least acknowledge his relationship to her. The couple in Certified Copy eventually (we think) turns out to have been married for 15 years, but in their first scene together the man behaves stiffly and distantly toward her, as though meeting her for the first time.
This lack of intimacy is partly a function of Shimell's frequently hands-in-pockets performance, unfazed in most moments until growing awkwardly angered, and of the strong contrast it creates with Binoche's everywhere-at-once physicality. But in The Report, too, Kiarostami cast a first-time film actor (Kurosh Afsharpanah) opposite a more seasoned actress (Shohreh Aghdashloo), her greater ease and confidence with her body helping to place pressure on the less physically certain man. Certainly the Shimell-Binoche contrast is stronger than the Afsharpanah-Aghdashloo one, but the difference in how we understand these two relationships also depends on the difference in how we literally see them.
Sheila O'Malley has helpfully noted on her blog how, for the majority of the time we see the couple in The Report, Kiarostami frames them in separate shots, using shot-countershot editing for their conversations. The point is clear—they're addressing each other from different psychological spaces—and consistent with a more recognizably Kiarostamian method. In 1997's Taste of Cherry and 2002's Ten, the bulk of which take place in cars, the director filmed myriad conversations in which the two passengers never appeared in the same shot. Considering that much of Cherry shows a man failing to convince people to help him kill himself, and that much of Ten consists of a woman trying and failing to hold a reasonable conversation with her son, the choices to splinter people visually made sense thematically.
Certified Copy, though, plays a different game by placing the couple together in shots from the outset, and then following them for the duration of the scene, camera movement always motivated by character. The shift might have something to do with Kiarostami's switch from 35mm equipment to digital, which he has used for the past decade and the way in which it has allowed him greater freedom to shoot takes of long scenes without needing to cut. But it also likely has to do with Copy's interest in whether people can and will accept each others' realities, the long shots allowing us to observe their actual behavior toward each other. When Binoche's character discusses the details of her marriage, half of the film's tension goes into whether Shimell's will believe her.
The other half goes into whether we will. One of the most surprising scenes in a film replete with them comes late, when the couple sits down at a restaurant. He complains about the quality of the service and of the wine, she asks whether he's noticed her new makeup and earrings, and the conversation turns into a fight over interpretations of moments from their marriage. The most striking formal aspect here is the way in which Kiarostami cuts and shoots so that the scene turns into shot-countershot of the characters directly pleading or arguing with the camera, or else pleading or arguing with us. It's the Copy scene most reminiscent of Shirin, Kiarostami's previous film, which consists almost entirely of close-ups of women watching an offscreen film, and of the director's non-cinema ventures like his 2008-2009 production of the opera Cosí fan tutte, during the last act of which a screen showing the orchestra obstructed view of the actors. In these scenes and moments, the onstage drama consists of what would more typically be off, making us more aware of our own positions in the audience, and of the drama of whether we grow more or less aware of ourselves when we watch art.
Kiarostami has been interested in raising viewer self-awareness for a while, at least since 1990's Close-Up, the opening of which consists of hanging around with a bored photographer while the more sensational stuff, a man's arrest, happens offscreen. Part of raising our self-awareness consists of us becoming more aware of the filmmaker, and of how artists also dream—the arrested man in Close-Up compares himself to a character in an earlier Kiarostami film, The Traveler, the central narrative action of which consists of a young boy falling asleep. No boys are allowed to nap in Homework, made immediately before Close-Up, a documentary in which Kiarostami himself appears talking to kids about how they have too much schoolwork, then forces one to recite a lesson as a director might compel actors to deliver lines. He followed this film portrait with Life and Nothing More, in which a director travels through an earthquake-shaken village by car to find the lost lead of Where Is the Friend's House?, and Through the Olive Trees, in which another director visits the same village briefly to shoot a scene from Life and Nothing More. For the past 20 years the director has worked to make us aware of his fictions, to the point where fiction seems like a natural part of reality.
It's startling, then, to watch The Report, a straightforward fiction that presents a similar situation to Certified Copy's (Jonathan Rosenbaum has called Copy a remake) without the later film's self-awareness. Like Copy, The Report shows the couple sitting down to and then arguing over a meal, but the younger Kiarostami shoots the people looking slightly sideways offscreen, presumably at each other, rather than directly forward at each other and at us. Report stresses how the man in particular lacks self-awareness, as scenes show him dressing in front of or passing by a mirror without looking directly at himself. The man in Certified Copy frequently looks in mirrors, in the form of progressively older men in relationships, the ultimate of which (played by legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière) tells him that he should put his arm around Binoche's shoulder. A scene later, he does exactly that.
Kiarostami's best films show the ease with which fantasy inhabits everyday life. His dreamers, wishers, and believers are really surrogates both for the audience and for himself who, like every artist, is also part of an audience. While The Report shows a man behaving, often badly, Certified Copy shows a man receiving versions of how he could behave, until he finally must choose. In The Report, the wife overdoses on sleeping pills, and the film's last shot shows the man clearly walking out of the hospital. In Certified Copy, Binoche falls asleep simply because she's tired, and the man goes to the bathroom. He looks in one last mirror, which is really the camera, and leaves the frame. The lovers addressing each other have turned into viewers and an artwork addressing each other; the drama has shifted from the characters' relationships with each other to their (and the filmmaker's) relationship with the viewer. In this meta-Report (its characters are even art buffs), one person's value depends on another person's gaze. The film builds suspense over whether the characters will stay together while asking whether and how we want them to stay with us.