Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy makes you squirm with embarrassment: at the bad acting, the bad writing, the falsity of the tones and tantrums even within the story, the ugliness and unkindness of the behaviour on display. Still, it’s authentic embarrassment, the real insidious thing, and it tempts us to believe the effect is intentional.
As it must be in part. Just when a cramped and broken conversation in a half-lit cellar is becoming too much for everyone, a character says he’d like to be outside, and the cut to a sunlit Italian street feels like an almost physical release: it doesn’t improve the conversation but we’re glad we got out. A few moments later we eavesdrop on a long chat between two people – clunky and didactic now – and we watch it through the windscreen of a car, with the golden reflections of the streets of Arezzo streaming across it. Lovely to look at – as is the whole movie, shot by Luca Bigazzi – but also, like the cellar, visually confining. Then abruptly the car leaves the town, the shot reverses, and we see the clear open road stretching out before us, lined with ancient cedars, but full of places for the eye to go.
Obviously Kiarostami wants these effects, and they are impeccably timed. He probably wants something of the stilted gestures and diction he gets too, but can he really want Juliette Binoche to sound quirky and irritating in French and merely snotty in English – and like a retired diva when she speaks Italian? Does he want William Shimell to seem vaguely, aloofly interesting for a small fraction of the time and alternately doped and manic for the rest? He certainly wants the registers of voice and emotion of these people to shift in strange ways, but does he want them to shift in these ways, and how much control does he have over the contours of the action, as distinct from the tempo and the lighting?
But control and intention are not the only or the best questions here. A better question is what we do with what we see, apart from feeling embarrassed – or what we do with our embarrassment. The easiest thing would be to dismiss the whole movie as an exercise in the mimetic fallacy, the doctrine that says it’s all right for films about boredom to be boring – well, not just all right, ideal. On this reading Certified Copy would be about embarrassment, show embarrassed people in action, and succeed in embarrassing us: a resounding success in its way but a lousy movie. But it’s not a lousy movie. It’s not a good movie either. It’s a pastiche of a good movie – by Antonioni, say – with weird undercurrents that put our embarrassment to use.
An English writer (scholar, critic? – he says he’s not an art historian and manifestly he’s not) has written a book called Certified Copy, Copia conforme in the Italian edition displayed before us on a table as the movie opens. The book has won an Italian prize, and Miller (played by Shimell) is here to say thank you. Or he will be here in a minute. His Italian host appears on camera and plays for time, in Italian – everyone speaks their own language in this film, except when they also speak someone else’s. Miller arrives, expresses his appreciation in a stiff, unappreciative way, but after the first words we’re not really paying any attention to him, we’re watching Juliette Binoche (I don’t recall anyone calling her anything in the film; in the credits she is ‘Elle’) and her young son (the credits just call him ‘le fils’) arrive, settle down, share glances, fidget and leave. Miller’s book’s main argument, it seems, is that we should dispense with the fetishism of originality and accept that a copy can be just as valuable, or even just as authentic, as an original. Or as the writer’s slogan has it: ‘Forget the original, just get a good copy.’
The next moment, when Binoche takes her son off for some food, would be the best scene in the movie if it were going anywhere in the direction of realism. Without interrupting the game he is playing on his handheld device the boy shrewdly quizzes his mother about her interest in Shimell. She half denies it, half acknowledges it and then loses her temper. This boy is obviously the most intelligent person in the film, and makes the later conversation the adults have about the innocence and directness of children more than usually vacuous. To be fair, Binoche doesn’t think children are innocent or direct, she thinks they are a nuisance. She probably loves her son really, but this is part of her personality she has chosen to occlude.
Binoche and Shimell meet up, she takes him for a drive to the village of Lucignano, where there is a painting long thought to be an original, a sort of Tuscan La Gioconda. It’s only been 50 years or so since it was declared a copy, and the museum guides are still anxious on the subject, as if having been an original was in itself a form of authenticity. We note the continuing theme, and pretty soon the film will get on with its business and stop trying to prime us for what it seems to think is an astonishingly demanding intellectual task – that is, thinking about copies. Where is Orson Welles when you need him?
The village is also full of couples getting married, a sort of atmospheric stimulus to the plot, which finally gets underway. Binoche and Shimell stop for coffee in a small restaurant, and the owner mistakes them for husband and wife. Binoche decides to play along and so, after a good deal of hesitation, does Shimell. Now they’re speaking French mainly, a language we haven’t heard Shimell use before. They throw themselves more and more into the fiction, sharing and failing to share memories – it’s mainly her sharing and his failing to remember, but that’s still different from his denying the possibility of the past events – and working their way up to a full-blown marital squabble and the apparent agreement that today is their 15th wedding anniversary. What’s more, they spent their wedding night in this town, or so Binoche says. She talks her way into what she claims was the room they had in a particular pensione, they have a long inconclusive conversation, he seems determined to go back to England and reality after all, but only gets as far as the loo before the film decides to end.
It’s possible, of course, that what I’ve just described is not the plot of this film at all. Perhaps Binoche and Shimell are married, and don’t see each other all that often. They wouldn’t need to impart this narrative information to each other, and the film, perhaps, chooses not to impart it to us. Or they’re not married, but they’re not strangers either. They like to play the game of strangers, and the restaurant owner’s mistake gives them the chance of a new game: the strangers who aren’t strangers. Or – wait a minute – who continue to play strangers because husbands and wives are naturally strangers to each other: that’s what marriage is like, in spite of all those happy deluded young people tying the knot in Lucignano. Is there a point at which the fiction meets the fact, the play marriage feels like the real marriage, or the real marriage isn’t finally any different from the play marriage? Does it matter which of the narrative options we choose? Not really. But we haven’t come to the hard question yet.
It’s this. Whether these are strangers playing at being married, or a couple playing at being strangers, or a pair of people, married or not, playing or not, who can only parody themselves, lock themselves away in the picture of the person they have become, why are they so hopeless at doing it? If we take the bad acting and bad writing as a directorial choice or risk, a form of extreme mimesis, what are they saying to us? That people in general are just not very good at being people, at being anything as coherent as a self, and that the writer’s slogan is entirely wrong? He should be saying: ‘Forget the original and the copy, just try to get a modicum of consistency into your wobbling life.’ This thought is confirmed by the film’s most haunting stylistic habit: focusing and holding on a face, usually Binoche’s but also Shimell’s from time to time, as if it were across the table from us and all we had to do was look at it. In these moments we see not a character, not an actor or an actress, but what Buñuel once called, in relation to Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, the human geography of a face: terrains, edges, shadows, erosion, fatigue. What embarrasses us beyond any idea of ineptness in the film is the unveiled vulnerability of these visual remainders of persons, mere views that the camera has picked up and won’t let go.