Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground

Review: CERTIFIED COPY (Abbas Kiarostami)

It is difficult to begin writing about this film now without acknowledging the critical response to it when it was first released.  At first I am baffled by the chorus of dismissal; by those who think Kiarostami is out of his element.  But that is my more naïve and generous nature.  If I think about for five minutes, it makes sense that reviewers and serious critics alike would trip over themselves rushing to take Kiarostami down a peg.  We have no reverence for artists anymore.  Even artists like Kiarostami who has proven time and time again that he is among the world’s greatest filmmakers, doesn’t get the benefit of any doubt.  Apparently it’s still better to be smarter than the artist that to try to imagine that you may be missing the point of his work.

Granted, Certified Copy seems strange at first.  In many ways it is a hard turn away from the Kiarostami that we know.  Since when does he make films about communication breakdown between men and women in love?  And what’s with the absurdist conceit of the narrative clearly stating that the two principle characters just met, but they suddenly begin playing the roles of husband and wife, and arguing as if they have known one another intimately for years?

There are familiar Kiarostami-isms of course.  There’s a car ride with a shot through the windshield of the car interior and a shot of the exterior POV of the driver.  There are single medium shots that remain on one character throughout an exchange of dialogue instead of the typical shot/reverse shot strategy employed in mainstream films.  We are used to this from Kiarostami.

But then there are white people.  In fact one of the principles is one of the most famous actresses in the world.  One is tempted to say that Kiarostami’s camera treats her like the renown actor that she is, but all the close-ups and silent acting have characterized his film style, long before Kiarostami found Juliet Binoche, so it would be unfair to suggest that the filmmaker makes love to his actress the way Godard does to Anna Karina, Antoninoi to Monica Vitti, Fassbinder to Hannah Schygulla or Bergman to Thulin, Andersson or Ullman.  Still, has there ever been a shot in a Kiarostami film like the one wear she dolls herself up in the washroom at the café.

To my mind this is not selling out.  This is Kiarostami finding out that his style is capable of doing things beyond what he has accomplished so far.   Many critics have noted that the main actor, an opera singer with no professional acting experience, is stiff and mismatched with the effusive Binoche.  Well, that is precisely the point!  He is a drag.  He is serious, stuffy, boring, internal and inconsiderate.  That they are mismatched is not a mistake, but rather it is the crux of the narrative conflict.  The movie is about communication break down.  It asks us to think about whether men and women can really understand one another.  What is love if we cannot?  How do we stay together?  What do we stay together for?

All of us like to put things in categories; it is part of how we understand the world.  But we should make sure that we are using the right categories.  When you think of Kiarostami in terms of his subject matter and of the nationalities of the faces he usually photographs, a film about white people’s relationships may not make any sense.   The onus is on the viewer to make that shift; it is not incumbent upon the artist to make a film we can fit into our predetermined categories.  This is why Bresson critics don’t understand that Une Femme Douce is about love between men and women, and why Tarkovsky apostles so often fail to note the importance of the relationship between the two principles in Nostalghia.  We know what their movies are about and it isn’t that.  Yet, they are masterpieces.  They are nuanced and sincere explorations of a subject Bresson and Tarkovsky normally merely brush against.  Certified Copy now ranks alongside them, both as a masterpiece as an unexpected, misunderstood work.



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