Tuesday, May 17, 2011
CERTIFIED COPY - FILM REVIEW (2010 - directed by Abbas Kiarostami)
“We normally think of poetry as one of a number of arts; and so, it is clear, did Plato. But, if we now go on to look at the kind of thing Plato said when he was talking about art in general (including poetry but not limiting himself to it) and then at the kind of thing he said when he was talking about poetry only, we find a striking difference. In the first case (thinking of art in general or poetry merely as one among other arts) he treats it as a form of mimesis - imitation. Thus in the Republic we are told that poets and artists in general, are unreliable because they produce imperfect imitations or copies of nature; and Plato adds that, since nature herself is only an imperfect copy of an eternal and immaterial reality, the poet is a man who supplies us with an imperfect copy of an imperfect copy.”
- Owen Barfield
First released on May 18, 2010 at the Cannes Film Festival.
United States limited release on March 11, 2011.
This review may contain spoilers. (Sometimes the term "spoiler" can mean different things. In other words, usually, with a great film, once you decide to try the thing, it's preferable to read nothing at all about it, and to simply allow the story to reveal itself to you in its own way. On the other hand, I realize there are films upon which one isn't quite sure if one should spend the time and effort. You can just take my word for it that Certified Copy is absolutely one of these films. Or, if you still need a little convincing, I'm not going to reveal the ending so go ahead and read as much of this as you need to until you've decided to try it out.)
To state the obvious, most people will find Abbas Kiarostami's latest film, Certified Copy , incredibly dull. I believe the description film critics are also giving it is "pretentious." The entire film is simply a conversation. But oh the joy you'll miss if you are constitutionally incapable of sitting through, and reflecting upon, for only a short 106 minutes, this conversation. Of course, "conversation" is just one way of describing it. You could also say it was a "dare" or perhaps even a "duel," but more on that later.
At the heart of the film is a single idea, summed up nicely by the film's title (also the title of the book written by James). James has just written a philosophical book on art. In it, he makes the argument that the idea of something being real or authentic is just meaningless. A great work of art doesn't have to be the original copy in order to inspire or exhibit beauty to the viewer. In other words, a copy of something is just as good as the real something. To James, the word "fake" doesn't even have any meaning either. The derivative thing, the copied work, a forgery, or a replica work - are really no different from the original thing, the initial work, a archetype or a first work.
Listening to these two talk is not dull. They each have sharp wits in their own way. She is immediately more likable and sympathetic than he, but that's just their personalities. Remember, he's distant and British; she's passionate and French. Since he asked her to get out of town for a bit, she decides to take him to a small quaint little Italian village to show him something. It's a clever idea to support her argument actually. She takes him to an art museum of sorts to see a beautiful old painting that was recently discovered to have been cleverly copied from an even older original work. In other words, it is the "real thing" when it comes to copies. She finds it special and paradoxical, he finds it ... dull. It's nothing new in his opinion. Copies like this sort of thing are everywhere, all the time, in every place.
To get a better grasp of this debate, you really just need to watch the film. I admit I've only just seen it, and I immediately felt like writing as many thoughts that I could about the film down before I completely forgot all of them. Thus, I can't reproduce many lines of dialogue. But it's a discussion both worth having and worth listening to. However, the discussion/argument is just a prelude to the part of the film where the tension begins to build. These two next decide to go to a coffee shop, during which he has to step out for a phone call. While he's away, the waitress says something briefly to Binoche's character and it turns out the waitress is assuming the two of them are married. Almost on a mischievous whim, the woman decides to go along with it, and she creatively starts making up elaborate details about their "marriage" to tell to the waitress. This is also where the village becomes important. Not only does the village have an ancient building full of art, it also has an ancient tradition that a golden tree inside the building will bring luck to any bride and groom. Thus, the village is always full of people who go there to get married. Marriage becomes the subject used to test out these ideas.
Thus, what begins as an amusing conversation and then turns to playful fancy develops immediately into a battle of wits. Both of them have left each other free to make up whatever details or memories of their marriage that they please in order to advance their own position. Both of them just have to keep playing along with pretending in spite of surprises that they are in a "real" marriage together. He, in order to show her that there's really no difference at all; she, in order to show him that there really is quite an important difference indeed.
She finds it easier to put her real feelings into it sooner than he does, but once there, he can't help but respond. Storming off after having lost one argument that she almost unfairly (but it's not like they set any rules) contrives to make him out to be the bad guy in the marriage (constantly being away from his family, leaving her frequently for long periods of time on business, falling asleep on the night of their 15th anniversary), he thinks things through and comes back with an elaborately contrived story of his own about her (falling asleep while driving their son). The details are almost too perfect. It's no wonder so many other film reviewers insist on believing them. But simply assuming they then must really be married is, in my opinion, shortchanging Kiarostami. Half of their conversations and stories lose their magic if they're actually true. The genius of a man and woman both captivated by the other, going back and forth, masking their surprise and being impressed with the other's creativity, is part of what makes the debate between the two so riveting. It's like a dance.
They do find each other attractive. There's a chemistry that builds between them early in the film. So as the debate continues, they both find it easier and easier to play their parts, and more and more believable that they really have been married to each other this long. After having drawn from their past experiences and frustrations to use against each other in this little competition of theirs, part of what gives their developing relationship its depth is that they each, at various intervals, seem to believe in the parts they are playing. Pretending that something is real can , under given circumstances, can begin to make something real. Sometimes, when you pretend, you can even forget what is real, for at least a little while.
So yes, they really start falling in love. But doesn't this prove his point? Wasn't a pretend marriage suddenly just as joyful and hurtful as a real marriage? He argued at the beginning that a copy of an original beautiful painting could give the same feelings and the same appreciation of beauty as the original work itself. Besides, if feeling and aesthetic sense is only subjective, then why would it matter what you used to cultivate your sense of beauty? They are surrounded by newlyweds in this village, many of whom will experience, in his opinion, all the same disillusionment, miscommunication and hurt that the two of them are experiencing in their pretend marriage for a day. So what's really the difference?
In her eyes, he needs to prefer the genuine relationship to the contrived one. It's probably easier for us to take her side against his. We've been taught that being authentic is to be preferred to being derivative. We believe real emotions are to be preferred to hypocrisy. Obviously. Of course. But, the terms "authentic" and "reality" are used so repetitively in our modern culture that they are often in danger of becoming cliches themselves. Products are labeled "authentic" or "original" all the time by marketing companies. If this is true, then what do we do when our preference for authenticity and reality becomes fake or contrived? becomes a fad? At the beginning of this review I said that most people would find the film boring. If you asked them why, they might say because the story and the conversation seems so pretentious and contrived. For instance, The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw writes -
What Bradshaw is missing is that most of the dialogue is pretend dialogue. I'm convinced they aren't really married, but they each decide to pretend in order to win the argument. Back to my last question, I'm also afraid a large number of people will see this film simply because they believe it to be authentic "art house" intellectual movie fare. Their consumption of what has been marketed to them as avant garde , outside of Hollywood, indie flicks has more to do with the image they want to build for themselves than it does with really caring about thinking about the ideas in the film itself. One of the worst problems with the character of James in this film is that his tendency to "think deep thoughts" is affected. When she looks at him, you can't help but imagine her thinking how he might as well be an entirely fake human being. This idea of copies and originals, real and fake, can be applied to people as well as to art. His hollow and lofty ideas come across as trying to justify himself more than they come across as his really caring about them.
"... Why? What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were.
Now, the moment you realise "Here I am, dressing up as Christ," it is extremely likely that you will see at once some way in which at that very moment the pretence could be made less of a pretence and more of a reality. You will find several things going on in your mind which would not be going on there if you were really a son of God. Well, stop them. Or you may realise that, instead of saying your prayers, you ought to be downstairs writing a letter, or helping your wife to wash-up. Well, go and do it ..."
What is the difference between fake and real, between the copied and the authentic? The difference is evident when you are suddenly faced with a choice between the two. In our lives, we are often suddenly confronted with the ability to choose between that which is fake & shallow and that which is actual & new. At the end of the day, the man and woman in this story are suddenly confronted with the fact that they can end their discussion, he can catch his train at the station, and they can never see each other again. They both have the ability to end their pretended marriage and to put a stop to the real intimacy that has developed between them over this slow afternoon of walking down the streets of a superstitious old Italian village. But do they want to? What are they going to choose? What should they choose?
This is the final question the audience, who has just watched a film (where actors pretend to be in real life) about two people acting out roles in order to make an argument, is confronted with. More films should confront us with more of these sorts of questions more of the time. Kiarostami is to be thanked for doing so.