Iranian ex-pat auteur Abbas Kiarostami’s 2010 exploration of the mysteries of the male-female relationship in the context of authenticity in art, Certified Copy, is now available as a two-disc set in The Criterion Collection. Disc One has a “director-approved” digital master and the film’s trailer. The second disc has the rarely seen The Report, Kiarostami’s second feature from 1977 encoded from an old analog video master made from a subtitled theatrical print damaged from heavy use. The original was destroyed during the Iranian Revolution. The quality of the print is poor, but clearly better than nothing for those interested in the trajectory of the director’s work. Also included are a 2012 interview with the Kiarostami and an Italian documentary feature on the making of the film, Let’s See “Copia conforme.” Finally the package includes an excellent introductory essay on the director and the film by critic Godfrey Cheshire.
The Criterion Collection gives you your money’s worth. You watch it all and you come away stuffed with information. More often than not this is a good thing, but there are times when—well, think of the dodgy repletion after a Thanksgiving turkey with too many trimmings. If you watch all the bonus material, you will learn an awful lot about the film, perhaps too much.
Certified Copy is a film filled with interpretive possibilities, the more you know about what the artists—the actors, the writer/director—think, the more those possibilities shrink. In interviews they all pay lip service to the need for the audience to draw its own conclusions about characters, about themes, about meaning. In practice, their ideas and comments are nearly impossible to ignore. Of course, no one is making you watch the bonus material. While some of it is interesting and informative, nothing there is essential, and I, for one, am sorry I watched it.
If Certified Copy is a great film, and it is a great film, its greatness lies in its inscrutability. As I watched, the cinematic ancestor it brought to mind was the Alain Resnais classic Last Year at Marienbad, perhaps the ultimate film enigma. Technically there were things like the slow pace, the moving camera, the intense close ups. Then there were things like the importance of the setting—as Resnais’ camera moves through the rococo hallways of the hotel, Kiarostami has his actors, Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, drive through the Tuscan countryside, walk through the village of Lucignano and its museums. Most interesting of all by way of analogy, however, is the sense of fractured time in both films and the sense of some elaborate game being played between a woman who has no name and a man she both loves and hates, fears and is drawn to.
What happened last year at Marienbad? What happened fifteen years ago in Tuscany? Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the script for Mairienbad, were very clear in the case of their film, that that was not a meaningful question. Ontologically, there was no such thing as a last year. All there was was a film. In life there is a last year, in a film there is only what appears on the screen. Moreover it is not for the artist to tell the audience what a work of art means. Robbe-Grillet is famed as a believer in the dictum that art doesn’t mean, art is.
In some sense, Kiarostami would seem to agree, the trouble is that the more he talks in his interviews, the more he seems to indicate that in fact there is one reading of the relationship between the central characters in the film, that time sequence may not be indicated directly, but once he mentions how he views it, it claims authority. Some viewers will welcome certainty; others, myself included, favor ambiguity. I guess I prefer what I thought I was seeing to what the director thought he was showing me.
Enough about the intrusion of external material, it is after all the film that’s the thing, and while some will find it slow going, others will be thoroughly engrossed. Whether it is dealing with an aesthetic question like the value of a copy in relation to an original work of art—a question which focuses the initial relationship between Binoche’s character and Shimell’s James Miller who has written a book on the subject, or the nature of the emotional relationship between the two, it offers no easy answers. We follow the pair as they meet the day after, a lecture in which Miller is promoting his book. She takes him on a tour of the area to pass the time before his scheduled departure at nine and eventually they wind up in Lucignano, a village famous for weddings.
At first their conversation runs to intellectual argumentation—the witty by-play of strangers getting to know one another. As the day progresses, if it is in fact one day, the stakes are raised, their conflicts become more intense; they become the kinds of conflicts that grow over years. It is as much the universal conflict between the sexes as it is between the two specifics individuals: in a sense they are copies, themselves.