I can still remember the excitement I felt on seeing my first Abbas Kiarostami film, Where is the Friend’s House, some thirteen years ago (I’m not sure, but I think it was also my first Iranian film). It’s set in the remote area of Koker, and has little plot; I couldn’t figure out to what degree I was watching documentary versus fiction, nor to what extent the film (which is often quite funny in what we might term a deadpan way) was tapping natural rhythms of local behavior versus creating a heightened reality. It’s part of Kiarostami’s intrigue and value that after watching many more of his films since then, these questions remain unresolved in my mind.
He won the top prize at Cannes in 1999 for A Taste of Cherry, but spent most of the last decade in a more experimental vein. I think I last addressed him here in 2004, when I saw two of his works, 10 on Ten and Five, at the film festival. The first is a series of unsurprising commentaries on filmmaking; the second consists of five long takes, taken close to the Caspian shoreline. In the program book, Kiarostami said of Five: “It is as if I recited a poem which had already been written. Everything already exists…I simply observed it.” But I couldn’t help questioning whether this achievement seemed worthy of a man often hailed by then as one of the greatest living filmmakers, and I concluded: “It would not take much to read 10 on Ten and Five, taken in combination, as symptoms of a director in crisis – first a little too stridently asserting his relevance, then seeking to deny it altogether.”
Since then I haven’t thought too much about Kiarostami. He contributed an Italian-shot episode to a three-part film called Tickets; it rattled along very entertainingly, but I doubt anyone not forewarned could have identified it as his work. I didn’t see his last film Shirin, which reportedly consists of shots of over a hundred women in a theatre audience watching a film, all of them Iranian except for…Juliette Binoche. She’s also the star of his return to full-length narrative filmmaking, Certified Copy, which is now playing here. She plays an unnamed woman, running an antique store in a small Italian town and raising her son. William Shimell (an opera singer making his acting debut) plays James, an art critic, giving a presentation on his new book Certified Copy at the local university; she leaves him a note and he visits her store, suggesting they take a drive together. Their interaction is rather spiky – she doesn’t actually think much of his ideas overall – but when they stop for a coffee and James steps outside to take a call, the café owner takes them for a married couple, and Binoche’s character plays along. She tells him about it afterwards; gradually they start to talk as if they are indeed married, with this being their 15th wedding anniversary, and with all the problems in their relationship coming to the surface.
The film might be seen as a cross of sorts between Luis Bunuel and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (Kiarostami emphasizes the debt to Bunuel by casting his frequent scriptwriting collaborator as a fatherly passer-by in one scene). Like the latter, it consists mainly of two people talking in handsome settings, with lots of incidental pleasures along the way. But it also has elements of late Bunuel, particularly perhaps of his last film That Obscure Object of Desire, where the woman who torments the male protagonist was played in some scenes by one actress, in other scenes by another. Scene by scene, Certified Copy feels naturalistic, but ultimately it can’t be understood in realistic terms; you could see it as a symbolic narrative of transmigration perhaps, or else as an aesthetic creation lying outside the normal motivations and rationalizations of narrative cinema.
James’ book and his opening remarks address the relationship between originals and copies, arguing for a shift of value toward reproductions and representations. In a recent interview, Kiarostami summed up his intention as follows: “What the film is saying overall is not fundamentally about the history of art. Rather it is saying that the notion of owning an original is a notion that can harm your life. Ordinarily, all couples, all people, are looking for an original, for something exceptional…(but) there’s a poem by Rumi that says: If you look at a div (a horned Iranian mythic monster) with grace in your gaze, you can see it as an angel. Hence everything goes back to our gaze. Everything goes back to you and to the way you look. This is what the film is trying to say.”
Looked at this way, the film’s warnings against a fixation on originals become a caution on retaining a sense of perspective and possibility and remembering that life is what we make of it. In the last shot, James uses the bathroom and looks at his reflection, with us in the audience in the position of the mirror; earlier on we’ve watched the woman in the same way when she leaves the table in a restaurant to apply lipstick and put on earrings. These moments, I think, mean to establish the power of the gaze that Kiarostami talks about, in a sense to lay down our responsibility for these characters. There’s a directness to it that almost reminds me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, another ravishing tale of uncertain identities (Certified Copy also put various reviewers in mind of Antonioni, Resnais, and Rossellini, among others).
Among the Greatest?
Its great strength, I think, is that it never feels like merely a film of ideas. It’s full of little details and oddities and felicities of observation, benefiting throughout from a productive contrast in acting styles (Binoche won best actress at Cannes; Shimell on the other hand was hammered by some critics, quite unfairly I think). I have no hesitation at all in recommending the film, and if that “crisis” of Kiarostami’s that I talked about ever actually existed, it certainly seems to be over now.
But I still can’t bring myself to rate him as one of the greatest filmmakers. Saying “that the notion of owning an original is a notion that can harm your life” frankly doesn’t seem to me to be saying all that much, and the ideas James expresses often seem trite, or at least under-developed. The film, it seems to me, is smart more than it is wise; you admire its tactics more than its vision. Because the truth is, everything doesn’t go back to you and to the way you look; life holds far more constraints and tensions than that. Of course, as an Iranian filmmaker, Kiarostami knows this more vividly than most of us. That doesn’t imply a responsibility to spend his entire career illuminating his homeland, of course, but there’s not much doubt he was more valuable and original when he did.