Reknowned Iranian auteur, Abbas Kiarostami, has made his first non-Farsi feature, CERTIFIED COPY. The movie plays as a two-hander between Juliette Binoche, who won an award at Cannes for her performance in the film, and opera-singer William Shimmel, who makes his feature debut. He plays an English author called James Miller, in Italy to promote his book. Its central idea is that copies are as valuable as originals - and indeed, that all originals, in art, are essentially copies of the real-life model anyway. Pulled away from his lecture, Binoche's character leaves a note inviting him to meet the next day. She is a fan - he has to sign many copies of his book for her - but then again, she doesn't seem to agree with his central thesis. The opening half hour sees them argue of the nature of worth and beauty. She is fan - nervous, following his direction - and he seems irritated, spending time with her merely to pass time. The movie is hard to engage with - the conversation is too dry, too stilted - maybe a fault of the translation? The only thing that held my attention was the recognition of familiar Kiarostami tropes - conversations in cars, mobile phones interrupting conversations, the inability to communicate. The movie seems strange, disconcerting, and rather boring - but was this deliberate - the calm before the storm?
Something changes in the movie when the protagonists drive to a Tuscan hill-town and take a coffee. James describes the inspiration for the book - having observed a scene with a mother and son in Florence. He does not finish describing it, but it has a deep emotional impact on Binoche's character. Was she the mother? Why is she crying? Why does he callously get up to take a call regardless of her distress? We will never know - this just isn't that kind of film. The second occurrence in the cafe that shifts the gears of the film is that the proprietress mistakes them to be a married couple. Binoche's character falls in with the mistake, and soon James does too. The tension increases - the disquiet increases. By playing husband and wife without ever discussing why or whether too, they don't just flirt, or have moments of tenderness, but bicker and disagree. Binoche's character resents her husbands long absences and neglect of their teenage son. Using the man in front of her as a proxy - a copy - she vents her frustration and he responds in kind. The intensity of the exchange makes us wonder if they are really acting or if they were acting in the first part of the film - are they really husband and wife?
The film is hard to read - or rather there are many ways in which to read it. But what troubles me is that I can't read its success because even the performances are hard to pin down. Is William Shimmel a wooden actor - outclassed by Binoche? Or is he playing a character that's meant to be wooden, callous, emotionally avoidant? Is Binoche's performance bad because it occasionally veers into hamminess? Or is she playing a woman who is melodramatic, emotionally unstable, needy?
Overall, I found CERTIFIED COPY intellectually interesting but ultimately unsatisfying. I admired it more than enjoying it. It raised interesting questions about proxies and originals, and the difficulty of communication. But it also raised too many questions about the essential quality of the performances - and I suspect the answers would not be forgiving to either actor. So, overall, a noble failure, but far better to fail at something provocative and slipper than mundane.
CERTIFIED COPY played Cannes 2010 and was released in France, Italy and the Netherlands earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK.