When faking it is the real thing
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, March 25, 2011
As philosophical treatises go, “Certified Copy” is deeply engaging. Acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami bites off a big theme — the nature of art, life, love and the self — and gnaws on it for nearly two hours, until there’s nothing left but gristle. As a piece of cinematic entertainment, however, it’s a little, er, tough.
Shot in a series of mostly long, unblinking takes, the movie is structured as an extended conversation between James (William Shimell), an English author on a book tour, and an unnamed French woman (Juliette Binoche) who runs an art and antiques shop in the Tuscan village where James is giving a lecture on originality in art.
The film’s title comes from the English title of James’s book, translated into breezy Italian, we’re told, as “Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy.” Its thesis, as articulated by the author, is that our notion of originality — or artistic truth — is bunk. “The way you look at something,” James says, “changes its value.”
A copy of Michelangelo’s “David,” in other words, can be just as great and powerful as the original, as long as it means something to you. Binoche’s character, who invites James to spend the day with her strolling around the Tuscan countryside and to defend the ideas in the book, is no breathless fan. Sure, she has bought six copies for James to sign, but by her own admission she found parts of it “annoying.”
Sight unseen, you may find yourself agreeing with her assessment.
James, you see, is a bit of a know-it-all, though handsome and charming in a bookish British way. When the proprietor of a coffee shop makes the mistake of assuming that he and Binoche’s character are husband and wife, she doesn’t bother to correct the error. Soon the two strangers are playing an old married couple with each other, refusing to drop the ruse in a game of escalating emotional brinksmanship that ranges from the tender to the prickly to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”-caliber nastiness.
The intensity comes fast, and out of nowhere. It’s awkward and more than a bit weird.
At first, the whole thing seems like an academic exercise. Maybe she’s trying to drive home her point — that there is a qualitative difference between the fake and the real — through a harmless bit of role-playing. But James is a sore loser, and he plays for keeps. At the height of the charade, the two of them are sitting across from each other in a cafe. She’s dolled herself up for him in the ladies room with fresh lipstick and pretty earrings, somewhat pathetically. He’s spitting out a caustic defense of his having fallen asleep on their 15th wedding anniversary, which was, apparently, last night.
See, his boorish behavior demands, what’s the difference between being married to an actual jerk and an imaginary one? Your tears are just as wet.
“Certified Copy” is both fascinating and frustrating. And Kiarostami asks some good, hard questions about fact and fiction. But in the end it’s hard to see the line between the bruising, confusing head game that the protagonists engage in with each other and the one that Kiarostami has set up with us.
Contains a brief obscenity. In Italian, French and English with English subtitles.