To one-off Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy as a mere riff (w/ a twist) on either Viaggio in Italia and/or Before Sunset (which I heard several of my fellow critics spout out after the press screening of the film at Walter Reade) is to sell this brilliantly subversive film way way way short. Granted, one of course can see the similarities to both films - the ever-lurking camera winding through cobbled streets following an awkward couple, the idea of a possibly failing marriage and a certain desperation written on their faces - but what Kiarostami does here is take these same desperate couples (real or imagined as they may be) and places them inside - smack dab in the proverbial middle - of an elaborately manipulative puzzle. A puzzle that we never find out the solution to, but a puzzle that we do not need a solution to - possibly a puzzle there is no solution to. In other words, Kiarostami is taking us for another ride - and what a ride it is.
Juliette Binoche, in the press notes, talks about going to visit the director to find out about the film he wanted to make with her. She explains how she listened to this 45 minute story from Kiarostami about a series of events which happened to him, essentially, the story of Certified Copy. When it was all over, he asked her if she believed him. She said yes. Kiarostami admitted to it all being a lie and Binoche burst out in laughter. This is just the kind of twisted fairytale we get in Certified Copy. Much like the elaborate tomfoolery in the Iranian auteur's 1990 film, Close-Up, the story here is a garbled melange of truth and falsity.
A sort of meta-manipulation (and these are the best kinds - Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck pull off something along those lines in last year's I'm Still Here, though on a much simpler, and less artistic scale) Certified Copy follows Elle (Binoche, as sublime as ever) and James (Opera singer William Shimmel making his surprisingly in depth acting debut) through a Tuscan village as the play an intricately manicured game of emotional cat and mouse with each other. Mistaken by a local cafe owner as a married couple, Elle and James (supposedly meeting for the first time) begin to act out the parts they are mistakenly given. As the game goes further and further, the mind games get sharper and deeper until we no longer know what is real and what is make-believe. Elle and James perhaps no longer know either.
What exactly is going on here? Are these just two strangers playing head games with each other? Are they a real couple, playing games from the very start? Does any answer really matter? Is it not all about the game? It is not the solution (remember, there may not be one) but the puzzle that matters and the way the director and his two actors play around with such a thing. What they are playing around with is the idea of reality - what is the original, what is a copy, does it even matter which is which (as long as you believe the copy is the original, does it make it any less real?). Like I said, Kiarostami is messing with our heads again. It's great to have him back.
Finally making his way back to narrative filmmaking (after a decade experimenting in DV projects of varying degrees of success - one of these, Ten, is actually one of the director's greatest works) Kiarostami could not have asked for a more triumphant manner of return. The twisting dream-like malaise we have known before with Kiarostami (as well as obvious influences such as Antonioni and the aforementioned Rossellini) mixed with an underlying frenetic manipulation that is pure Kiarostami from unraveled start to even more unraveled finish. The Iranian auteur has made his first film outside of his native land and native land's tongue (and more importantly, outside of his native land's censors) and it may very well be his best work in over a decade. [03/07/11]