Monday, March 11, 2013

Certified Copy

Copie conforme (Certified Copy) 2010 France/Italy (106 minutes) written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami; adaptation by Massoumeh Lahidji; cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi; montage, Bahman Kiarostami.
What on earth are a famous Iranian film director, a French actress and an English opera baritone doing in one of Tuscany’s picturesque hill towns in verdant midsummer, talking of a leafless garden?
Abbas Kiarostami makes films about the barriers to communication between men and women. Juliette Binoche, contrary to newly-minted Tovarishch Gégé Depardieu’s disparagements, often opts for and masters unfamiliar or challenging emotional territory in the roles she selects. William Shimell is an established English baritone who, apart from operatic performances, has never acted professionally on stage or screen.
We have yet to see a satisfying analysis of this intriguing work. It would hinge on a simple concept that the male lead states clearly at outset; getting this makes the difference between whether Kiarostami is casting after some vague pattern of ‘artistic’ effects, or telling the kind of compelling story for which he is known.
James Miller (Shimell), a distinguished-looking middle-aged British writer with genuine stage presence and a lovely voice, appears to be on a book tour in Tuscany with his Italian translator Marco Lenzi (Angelo Barbagallo—one of the film’s producers). They are promoting the Italian translation of a provocative long essay Miller has written titled Copia conforme in Italian—Certified Copy.   
The main drift of Miller’s essay is his original English title which, but for a marketing-minded publisher, he later says would have been Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy. Miller argues in essence that the copy of an original work of art ‘leads to’ and thereby ‘certifies’ the worth of the original.
A woman (Binoche, without makeup—this comes on later), standing in the back of the room with her son (Adrian Moore) has Miller sign a copy of his book as he enters late to give his talk.
Once he begins his presentation, this woman comes center stage, takes a front row seat marked ‘reserved’ next to Miller’s translator, and begins to speak as though familiarly with him in whispers. As she whispers with Lenzi, she makes distracting hand motions to her son who is moving around the front of the room while Miller speaks, using a handheld electronic device. Lenzi writes down something for her and she and her son leave before Miller’s talk is over.
Lenzi has given her Miller’s telephone number. The woman, never named and identified in the credits only as ‘She,’ is the French owner of a local antique shop who has been living in Italy with her son for five years. She arranges to meet Miller at the shop on a Sunday morning; the two spend the day together.
Kiarostami puts this photogenic couple together in Lucignano, a picturesque small town in Tuscany, and gives them dialogue in English and French which sounds at first a little like a middle-aged version of Ernest Hemingway’s short masterpiece Hills Like White Elephants. That is, the couple seems to be talking carefully about everything except the thing they most want to discuss, which appears to be their failed relationship.  
But the key to what actually is going on is something Miller says in his spiel:
‘It’s my intention,’ Miller told his audience, ‘really, just to try and show that the copy itself has worth in that it leads to the original and, in this way, certifies its value. And I believe this approach not only valid in art. I was particularly pleased when a reader recently told me that he found in my work an invitation to self-inquiry, to a better understanding of the self.’
It will not ‘spoil’ a viewer’s experience of this movie know in advance that this couple never before have met. What is going on here is exactly a mutual acceptance of the ‘invitation to self-inquiry’ to which Miller refers, which frames the thesis of this film. 
Miller and She identify in each other a ‘copy’ of a former partner with whom they had failed relationships. In these copies, they seek access to the ‘originals,’ thereby ‘certifying’ the value of those earlier relationships by engaging in role play with each other as a copy, as well as speaking frankly to the copy as the original. In practice, this works like a sophisticated form of ‘couples’ therapy.’
They act and react to each other as to their former partners, though also at times as their past and present selves. In alternating between different roles in English and French, they tell their emotional histories in metaphors as much to themselves—the self-inquiry—as to each other and the audience. Their emotional histories are the heart of this story.
‘You don’t expect a tree to keep its blossom after spring is over because blossom turns to fruit. And then the tree loses its fruit,’ Miller says as they walk.
‘And then?’ She says.
‘And then? The garden is leafless.’
‘The garden is leafless?’                           
‘It’s a Persian poem: The garden is leafless; who dare say that it isn’t beautiful.’*
The role-playing Miller and She do is enhanced richly by poignant incidental encounters they have with a series of strangers as they stroll around this small Tuscan hill town through the day. The town is itself a character.
They meet a café owner (Gianna Giachetti), a young local bride and groom (Manuela Balsimelli and Filippo Troiano), and a pair of older French tourists at a town square (Jean-Claude Carrière and Agathe Natanson). Each of these strangers respond to the couple’s ‘copy’ as an original, yet the simple, authentic things they convey have as much validity for Miller and She as they do for the viewer.
However, Miller draws the line at playing a fake. He refuses to pose with She as ‘a man and wife celebrating their fifteenth anniversary at the place where they were married’ with a young couple actually getting married at there. A copy that intimates an original is one thing; pretending to be something he is or they are not violates the spirit of the exercise.
This varied collection of encounters, exchanges, stories, vignettes and intimacies finishes on the open question of whether this pair of strangers will be satisfied to ‘forget the original, just get a good copy’—and what that means.
In addition to the mysteries the opposite sex holds for—and from—each other, and which draws a viewer into Kiarostami’s narrative, this is a gorgeous movie to look at because of the meticulous attention to detail and extraordinary framing of shots.
The as if inadvertent ease with which the action takes place within the frames, and the simplicity with which the narrative flows, at times dreamlike, at an unhurried, natural pace reflects the director’s careful thought and planning, consummate skill and art, no less than the skill and hard work of his cast and crew.
As Miller said in the drama: ‘There’s nothing very simple about being simple.’
Abbas Kiarostami on the set of Copie conforme.
*Miller quotes the modern Persian poet Mehdi Akhavān-Sāles poem A Leafless Garden:
باغ بی برگی که می گوید که زیبا نیست ؟
‘Who says a leafless garden is not beautiful?’
(Bagh bi-bargi ke miguid ke zibah nist?)


  1. Nice review Peter! I guess imitation IS the sincerest form of flattery. Now I don't feel making copies of CDs and DVDs - I'm adding value to the originals!

  2. Very interesting. Can't wait to see the movie. Just put it in my queue.