Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
In Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, out this week through the fine folks at Criterion, a man and woman discuss the intricacies of originality and replication while the structure of their cinematic reality wavers. James is an author investigating the philosophy behind copies; “She” is an antiquarian equally intrigued and at odds with his conclusions. The pair argue about the intersection of theory and real life as Kiarostami skillfully manipulates our assumptions of his characters.
On paper, a number of the film’s aspects sound stereotypically and creatively problematic. James (William Shimmel) has a cold and rigidly “rational” exterior. He is eager for professional and creative voyages, but not personal ones. There is an aloof yet judgmental edge to his presence. She (Juliette Binoche) is a mother with no name. Most of her identity is shared during the film’s most ambiguous moments. We simply know that she’s emotional, passionate, and eager for love, romance, and support.
There is a stereotypical simplicity: he is rigid and ambitious, she is warm and emotional, but the film is anything but simple. As said in the film, “There’s nothing really simple about being simple.”
These are vague characters who require the viewer’s own frame of reference to finish their world. For as much as they share intellectually and emotionally, they are steeped in ambiguity. They seem primed to be the King and Queen of Kiarostami’s hyperreality. They are, after all, discussing about the nature of copies, the intrinsic benefits and faults of replication. They are one of many couples discussing themes of love and philosophy on film, a “real” life recreated on the screen. They are actors, potentially playing a couple who just might be acting. We, meanwhile, are living vicariously; we are watching the films and imposing our own reality, expectations, and desires – ones created, in part, through mimicry and media.
But it isn’t the theoretical framework that makes Binoche’s character so dynamic, that sets her apart from the many nameless, flippant, and stereotypical female characterizations encased on film. She's magic is the result of her presence and mind. Binoche’s stellar talent embodies the performance, and it is the conversation that fuels her. Her thoughts and words create a well-rounded and intriguing woman. Problematic pastiche avoids She because Kiarostami gives her room to have and express thoughts. She might not make mincemeat of the Bechdel test; her main, defining characteristic might be her motherhood; but it never reduces her to a fractional being. She immediately sticks out because she is continually thinking and speaking. Her entire manner has an easy-to-recognize intellectual basis; her mind is really her most distinctive trait.
Through his characters, Kiarostami argues: “It’s not the object that matters; it’s your perception of it.” It might seem that this idea would reinforce the notion that female stereotypes are no big thing – that all the power rests in our perception. But perhaps it’s not so much our fault, but our cross to bear until things change. Repeated imagery of fractional females with narrow physical and mental qualifications creates a hyper-reality of questionable, narrow standards based on meaningless signals that we embody, or see as “real” due to the power of the media. Our perception becomes problematic. It’s just like the many brides who swarm James and She throughout the film. Bride after bride walks in and out of the shot, a supposedly singular and highly important moment boiled down to the most photo-copied, cookie-cutter scenario. There is no unique expression of real love; there’s just mimicry.
There’s a sense that the couples need validation when one eagerly asks She and James to be in their wedding photos. The protagonists are the “proof” that the young couple’s certified copy, or recognized marriage, is legitimate. The newlyweds perceive an ideal reality and find “proof” to uphold that assumption. Like them, we swim in a manufactured reality, which thereby informs how we perceive the “ideal,” and how we interact with the world.*
She is both a copy and its antithesis. By getting the opportunity to speak, argue, react, regroup, and continue, she creates a cycle of communication that takes her vague outline of a character and makes her feel like one of the most relatable, flesh-and-blood women that cinema has seen in recent years. Her reactions are allowed to be part of the conversation rather than a lazily scripted list of emotional traits. She’s the cinematic sister to Julie Delpy’s Celine in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and Helena Bonham Carter’s “Woman” in Conversations with Other Women. In fact, it seems much like Kiarostami merged those two films with a healthy dose of Jean Baudrillard and Peter Greenaway. Like Celine, She is acting as guide for an English-speaking author; She plays the awkward meeting game, before discarding the ruse and speaking passionately from the heart. She is also like Woman, a figure whose conversational chemistry reveals the truth behind an interpersonal charade – a charade that seems to be replicated in Copy.
These women stand out not because they are perfect, angelic beings or wildly unusual characters, but because it jars us to see a woman talking honestly, without audacious camp, simplified emotions, or overwrought drama. As Kiarostami also argues in the film, “It’d be stupid for us to ruin or lives for an ideal.” The line speaks to many things – our rush to capture an “original” piece of art, the habit we have to replicate scenarios until they lose all meaning (the brides), and most importantly, how blank, disjointed characteristics interfere with our lives as consumers of media. Ripping away the ideals, and any assumptions we might make about them, Kiarostami creates a space where thought can become the replicated object. Or, at the very least, a space that invalidates our current habitual, replicated objects and allows a moment of reprieve before we create the next.
It’s a funny, double-edged sword. It’s terribly sad that pastiche-riddled culture makes something as simple as honest discussion so revelatory, but it’s also beautiful that something so simple – so real – can be so creatively and inspiringly jarring, and offer a much more “real” female experience.
*It’s interesting that the act of viewing the film pushes us into James’ position – to come up with a very rigidly theoretical analysis of such interpersonal issues. She would argue against it, but at the same time, it seems that the point of the movie. There is validity in both their experiences, and they directly look at us, the viewer, to connect them into a whole. By moving through the critical aspects of the film, we come to a really organic and thoughtfully interpersonal place.