Criterion Corner Review: 'Certified Copy' Is A Painfully Honest Love Story That Can't Be Trusted

Criterion Corner Review: 'Certified Copy' Is A Painfully Honest Love Story That Can't Be Trusted

May 22, 2012

#612 CERTIFIED COPY (dir. Abbas Kiarostami) 2010. 

“Everything is true, and everything is invented.” - Juliette Binoche

THE FILM (97 / 100) : Okay, so let’s just get the orgasmic platitudes out of the way up top: In my occasionally humble and typically perverse opinion,  Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is perhaps the best film of the last twenty years. Indeed, the last movie to so gracefully explode the limits of narrative power was Kiarostami’s 1990 masterpiece Close-up, another reflexive gut-punch that uses a heartbreaking story as a trojan horse to force the viewer into confrontation with the world as they’ve arranged it.

As a Kiarostami apologist, the last ten years or so have afforded me plenty of opportunities to step up to the plate and defend the guy.  Arguably (and deservedly) the most famous Iranian filmmaker in the history of their national cinema, Abbas Kiarostami’s recent work has been atypically inaccessible, abandoning the harmony that his most revered films struck between pathos and semiotics in favor of baldly academic gamesmanship. Formative fare like The Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us explored their creator’s obsession with the performative nature of identity by using rich character work like a hot salve to open pores,  but post-millennial offerings such as Shirin and the lovely Five Dedicated to Ozu have used people only as points of omission. I’m not complaining, both of those examples are compelling films deserving of further study, but it’s been somewhat frustrating to watch a filmmaker so capable of moving me devoted to making films that are so implacably still. 

It seems as though Kiarostami agreed that it was time for a change, and perhaps for a new challenge. After a career spent working within / obliquely terrorizing the oppressive Iranian film industry, Kiarostami decided to get out while he still could. So he packed up his stuff and headed straight for the rolling hills of rural Italy (he’d been there before to shoot a segment of the 2005 portmanteau film Tickets, and it’s not like he was gonna leave Tehran just to go to Detroit), where he continued to switch things up in a big way, deviating from his frequent use of non-professional actors in favor of casting the greatest actress in the world, Juliette Binoche (to be fair, her co-star is opera singer William Schimmel, seen here in his first film role).  The result is a love story, yes, but one less interested in celebrating love’s existence than dissecting how it works and why it dies. Though trying to recreate my initial impressions of the film seems thematically appropriate,  here’s how I described it for Reverse Shot’s “Best Films of 2011” countdown

“With Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami has devised the rare masterwork born from humility. Refracting the real-time romanticism of Before Sunset through a hall of winking mirrors, Kiarostami makes fakers of us all, himself included. In a small Tuscan village, a woman whose name we never learn (Juliette Binoche as “She”) meets a man whose name we can’t forget (opera star William Shimmel as “James”). She serves as his guide for the afternoon, and prompted by the “misunderstanding” of a local restaurant owner, the couple begins to act as though they’ve been married for fifteen years. It seems simple enough, but then there are chinks in the armor of their ruse, small moments of dislocation that compel viewers to distrust their own interpretations. Are they strangers or merely estranged? Are they a legitimate couple, or a convincing forgery of a well-worn human relationship? Kiarostami wouldn’t presume to know the answer, but he’s fascinated by the difference. Curiosity is his ultimate muse, and it’s one he has no interest in satisfying. He’d rather play cartographer than detective, following his two bickering leads as they map the divide between originals and their copies, all roads leading into intersections. We ferret for clues as we watch Binoche and Shimmel go through the motions, the latter’s relative acting inexperience underscoring the layers of performative behavior at work. Art and life are conflated into infinity, as people themselves are reinterpreted as copies (James refers to her child as a “Copie conforme”), and a parade of identical brides reveals our rituals as forgeries of a lost ideal, doing so without discounting their value. Eventually, the question of legitimacy is overwhelmed by the massive emotional wallop of whatever it is that we’re watching, endless layers of mediation pierced by the sort of longing that can’t ever be entirely fake if it feels this real.”

I’m not sure if my take on the film has evolved since then so much as it has saddened -- every subsequent trip through Kiarostami’s romantic funhouse seems a bit more tragic than the last, the mysteries of what’s left unresolved swallowed by the certainty of what’s exposed. In an interview included inside Criterion’s release, Kiarostami pontificates: “When we understand each other, love ends. So in a sense, yes, love is the result of a misunderstanding. When we don’t understand someone, we fall in love with them. When we realize that individual’s truth, we say they weren’t who we thought. So love is nothing but an illusion. Fortunately we have this capacity, otherwise there’d only be one original, and everyone would fall in love with him or her.” Whereas something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is predicated upon the idea that love withered is still love shared, Certified Copy suggests that love is not thinking, it is thought (my humble apologies to Jean-Luc Godard). Kiarostami’s trademark tracking shots, his use of car windshields, his affinity for ritual and having his actors stare directly into the camera as if it were a mirror... Kiarostami presents myriad ways of seeing, his visions blocked and broken by surfaces and symbols to the point where the gap between romance and ritual is all but erased. 

All of Kiarostami’s usual tricks collapse into a monumentally moving portrait of two people agreeing to be vessels for each others’ ideals. To them, love is destructive and flattening and unknowable because it requires people to be who they’re required -- the best way to remain strangers is to fall in love.  That might sound cynical, and perhaps the film might play that way in the hands of another auteur, but Kiarostami’s cinema is predicated upon the idea that life performed is life lived, and that for a love story to be told, all of us have to do a little of the telling. 

THE TRANSFER (100 / 100): For a film so recent, and one shot on the Red One camera, there is no excuse for it to look anything shy of perfect. Fortunately (if unsurprisingly), Criterion’s Certified Copy Blu-Ray is as beautiful a thing to look at as it is to watch. The transfer is flawless and consistent, and the colors are crisp without ever glossing over (everything you need to know can be seen between the dark of Binoche’s basement and the red of her lipstick).

Note: Huge kudos to Criterion for finally providing an English-language subtitle track for a multi-lingual release, thus resolving an oversight that prevented hearing-impaired viewers from enjoying certain films. 

THE EXTRAS (80 / 100): After Criterion honcho Peter Becker stated his opinion that Certified Copy is “Minor Kiarostami,” the fact that this disc even exists feels like something of a concession. With that in mind, it’s not particularly surprising that this isn’t exactly Criterion’s most loaded release when it comes to extras, but if they didn’t afford Kiarostami’s latest with the deluxe treatment, they certainly collected a generous and well-curated assortment of supplements for a film so new. The first thing you’ll want to check out is the surprisingly hefty making-of doc, “Let’s See ‘Copia Conforme,’” which has a lot more to offer than the usual E.P.K. junk you’d find on a non-boutique release. For one thing, the 52-minute doc opens with Kiarostami singing. From there, it hovers around the production with unusual transparency, and everyone interviewed is excitingly candid, from crew who discuss the unique challenges of Kiarostami’s style, to Juliette Binoche who offers her keenly observed insights into her character and how She was created. There’s also a nice 15-minute interview with Kiaorstami, in which the auteur (and the sunglasses that are apparently glued to his face) offers oodles of fun soundbites about his most mysterious film. It’s not a lot, but all of the extras carry their weight.

THE BEST BIT: Of course, any shortage of extras is offset by the doozy that Criterion snuck into this release: Another Kiarostami feature. The awesome bonus of including 1977‘s Report, hardly feels random, as Kiarostami’s first feature informs and anticipates his latest. Presented here in sub-VHS quality (not a complaint), Report has all the hallmarks of a debut effort. It’s stylistically simple, chatty to the extreme, and about as subtle as the revolution that destroyed the film’s original print, Report is nevertheless an invaluable (and autobiographical) means to understand Kiarostami’s fascinations, and a prism through which his career can be seen as an asymptote inching towards the mysteries he knows can never be solved. The story concerns a beleaguered tax collector who struggles to reconcile his work life with his disintegrating marriage (his wife played by a young Shohreh Aghdashloo), but the beats are such bald prototypes of those furthered in Certified Copy that Kiarostami scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum regarded the more recent film as a “Much-improved remake.” Definitely worth checking out for Kiarostami fans, or anyone interested in auteurism. 

Check out Aaron Cutler’s essay on the subject for some more perspective.

THE ARTWORK (64 / 100): Well what have we here? Criterion’s cover art caused a bit of a stir (these things are relative) because it deviated from Certified Copy’s elegant promotional art in favor of something dull and blocky, a design that prioritizes an expression of the film’s themes above an immediate aesthetic appeal. The cover is meant to emulate James’ book, from which the film borrows its title, which is a cute idea in theory but a lifeless look in execution. Still, I respect the attempt, and it’s worth noting that the reflexive motif is subtly extended through the included booklet, which reflects images of the characters as buffers in between an essay so as to visually express the dueling truths behind the film’s central relationship.

Visit the Criterion Corner blog to see what I mean. 

THE VERDICT: Criterion gives a modern landmark the home video treatment it deserves. There may be more deluxe versions of this film in the future as its esteem continues to snowball, but cinephiles and romantics alike shouldn’t hesitate to get in on the ground floor. 91 / 100 (not an average).

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