Love Streams: Abbas Kiarostami’s "Certified Copy"

Michael Sicinski

The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

—Jean Giraudoux

1. It is profoundly difficult to articulate the precise manner in which Abbas Kiarostami and his two lead actors, Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, expel the complicated emotional vapor that is Certified Copy. By saying this, I mean to convey a certain contradictory truth about the film. There are indeed aspects of Certified Copy that can be very directly explicated—it is nothing if not “thematic”—and there are in fact pivotal moments in the film’s construction at which specific types of dramatic gestures give way to other, virtually opposing gestures. In this respect, the word “pivotal” is a literal description, and does not just mean “important;” the situation and its meaning “pivots,” shifting into a different register in a manner similar to the way a motive changes shape and tempo between symphonic movements. (While visual art, and classical Italian sculpture in particular, is the dominant artform that serves as Kiarostami’s “backdrop” in Certified Copy, it is nevertheless noteworthy that Shimell is a major British opera singer, appearing in his first film role. So the film has art music deep within its DNA, even without bringing the issue directly to the table.)

Certified Copy concerns itself with the problem of simulation versus authenticity. In fact, Kiarostami takes the bold gamble of making his male protagonist, James Miller (Shimell) an academic who has written on the subject. The film begins with Miller presenting from his monograph, to an audience in Tuscany. The very theme of the film (or one of them, at least) is laid out by a character in medium-close-up, from behind a reading desk. Kiarostami presents the “theory” or “philosophy,” then proceeds to instantiate it, in a manner of speaking. (This is one reason why some commentators, even those generally bullish on Copy, have branded the film “cerebral,” which as we know is part of the American vernacular for chilly, emotionally distant, even frigid. A bum rap to be sure, but a fairly predictable one.) But even though Miller’s discourse will become a recursive touchstone for the film, which consists primarily of his sparring conversations with an unnamed woman (Binoche), the precise intellectual valence of his stance will become less and less certain. That is to say, Certified Copy operates almost in reverse of most thematically inclined works of art, which plunge us into a falsely desultory universe and gradually reveal their master interpretive passkey. Kiarostami’s film presents a concept, fully formed and cogent, and allows the rest of the film to set to work on that concept, breaking it into Heisenbergian particles, then bringing it back into solid shape, and on and on.

2. This idea is essentially summed up with the “original” title of Miller’s monograph: “Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy.” The contention is that the premium placed on originality, authenticity, provenance, and origins is a red herring, since it distracts us from the pleasure to be taken from the actual meaning of things. A work of art conveys its semiotic contents, regardless of whether it is an authentic original that issued forth from the hand of the artist, or if it is a forgery. In some sense this is a well-rehearsed postmodernist argument, a simplification of Nietzsche’s inversion of Platonic idealism in philosophy (i.e., anxiety about the “fatherless text”) that one finds espoused by the likes of Jean Baudrillard. But of course the implications of this are far greater than simply what it means to “read” a work of art. This statement of purpose is elaborated, at the start of Certified Copy, not in order to get us going on a project of art connoisseurship within a cinematic context, but as the framework for understanding a relationship drama.

Kiarostami has organized a highly unusual set of terms for exploring the process of being within a long-term marriage. This process becomes a question of simulation versus authenticity, a matter of “presence” not only in the conventional parlance of relationship-speak (“Could you try to be more present?”) but in the Derridean philosophical sense—a master term that transcends any and every failure and lack, a bulwark against the vicissitudes of time and tide. It is understood intellectually, and to some extent viscerally, that time will change us, and that we cannot and should not remain the same people throughout the course of a marriage. But this is very hard to square with the physical fact of constancy, of slowly growing older with the same person day after day, year after year. How do we distinguish between what we can reasonably expect to remain constant, on the one hand, and what represents an irrational, nostalgic longing for the “original,” for the Derridean master-term of who we once were, on the other?

3. But Certified Copy is only partially interested in these questions of ideality. This is because the struggle, between change and the lost ideal, is actually only one part of the dialectic. Binoche’s character, in the course of the film, stages a number of returns and repetitions, prodding James to remember. He fails to remember at every turn. There are shades of Alain Resnais here—Last Year at Marienbad and especially Hiroshima, Mon Amour—and this lapse in James’s memory has led some commentators to wonder whether these scenes actually represent events that the “couple” actually ever experienced together. This is somewhat unanswerable, within several different interpretive registers. But I digress.

Within these repetitions, Binoche is aiming to activate, if not the earlier, “ideal” James of their shared past, at least a reasonable facsimile of same. In the final shot, as James stares into the bathroom mirror (the camera), with one hour to go before catching his train, as the bells of the Tuscan cathedrals toll, he is faced with the choice. Will he return to his wife in the form of a performative copy of the man she wants him to be, or (as he did in the restaurant) will he defiantly assert his right to have become a different man, a man who loves her differently, in a gruffer and more mundane way? This final scene, of course, rhymes with Binoche’s bathroom scene, when she put on lipstick and earrings, “to make [her]self beautiful for [her] husband.” She chose, quite definitively, to become a copy of an earlier self, one without the resentments we’d seen her express minutes earlier. This marriage is beset by anger at James’s absence due to work obligations, his wife’s sense that he takes her for granted, and a general sense that he finds her frivolous. The aspects of one another’s personalities that so diverge, that must have appealed at some point, are now contentious.

The question—the one everyone must face at some moment of crisis in a relationship—is whether it is more crucial to be your own “original,” when that entails a sense of one’s own selfish entitlement, or to act as your own best “copy.” How to determine the truest, most authentic course of action? This is part of Certified Copy’s profundity. There isn’t one. It blends. It drifts across the long ribbon of time.

4. When I write about a film, I usually try to proffer my own views on it and leave other people’s opinions by the wayside, unless they are complementary to my own and have helped to clarify my own thinking. In other words, I don’t like saying that other viewers “have it all wrong.” But I must admit to being mystified by the frequency with which I’ve seen Certified Copy referred to as a “game,” in which Binoche and Shimell are described as strangers who, for whatever reason, have decided to pretend to be a married couple. This is one way to avoid all the most complicated and maddening aspects of this film, and to take the theme of copy / original at its face-value worst. If that’s the film, what have you got? Before SunriseSunset, with a performative twist?

5. There have been far too many films to mention that chart the “inevitable decline” of a relationship, from the naïve bloom of youth to the crushing weight of diverted hopes and disappointment. Songs of innocence and experience. Most of the time these films contrast a couple at the beginning and at the end of the relationship. (Most recently we saw this with the unremarkable Blue Valentine, which interspersed the two “times” through comparative editing.) Several films have taken the “unlearning” approach laid forth by Harold Pinter in Betrayal, moving backwards so that we can observe the bitterness of a couple in collapse and then, as a kind of demonstration of time’s cruelty, watch as they become fresh and unsullied again. In recent years, Ozon’s 5x2 has exemplified this in its most banal form. Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, of course, represents it at its most radical, although that is also a film with a great deal more on its plate.

Certified Copy is something else entirely. Kiarostami’s film is engaged with an altogether more radical, porous, more psychometric (dis)organization of time. Its closest direct analog would be the later French films of Luis Buñuel, and in this respect it is hardly coincidental that, apart from Binoche and Shimell, one of the only significant speaking parts in Certified Copy—a role explicitly aligned with the dispensation of fatherly advice—is played by the great French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, Buñuel’s collaborator on such relevant masterworks as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. Like those films, Certified Copy does not have a linear trajectory in terms of its characters’ movement through a solid, singular spatiotemporal existence. (I would gently ask those who forward the play-acting, “strangers act like an old married couple” thesis to explain the numerous anomalies, in both behavioral coherence and time shifting, that such an interpretation papers over. As the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn insisted, when too many anomalies accrue within a paradigm of understanding, that paradigm has to give way to another.)

6. During the introductory scene, we see Binoche and her 13-year-old son (Adrian Moore) sneak into the talk a few minutes late. “Sneak” may not be the right word; they’re a bit obtrusive, the kid showing clear lack of interest as he plays with a Nintendo handheld, and Binoche taking a seat down front. Binoche and her son retreat to a café after the talk, where he chides her for buying so many copies of Miller’s “Certified Copy” book, so that she can spend time with “that man.”

If you view Certified Copy for the first time, and take these first twenty minutes “straight,” all indications are that Miller is a stranger with whom Binoche is intrigued, and that her son (as older children often do to their single parents) is trying to embarrass her for her romantic interest. But, seen a second time (that it, repeated, viewed with experience), this sequence contrasts rather boldly with the crass familiarity the woman and boy displayed at Miller’s talk. They made no effort to be discreet, despite being late. (Granted, Miller was a bit crass in interrupting his own talk, allowing his mobile phone to ring midsentence and even taking the call!) All of this bespeaks a privilege of deep familiarity, which recodes the son’s dismissive talk of “that man.” Is he talking about his own father, from whom his mother is separated or divorced? Is he disgruntled at the sight of his mother about to embark on a repetition, something that, from the son’s perspective, can only be a counterfeit copy of an already destroyed original? Our kids, after all, have every right to expect that we will deal with them as though our capacities to love were still in mint condition, since we are having fresh, new relationships with them. At the same time, of course, they are always forced to grapple with our neurotic repetitions, the often inadvertent drive to shape them into rank copies of histories that are not their own.

7. At the start of this essay, I said that certain parts of Certified Copy could be explained rather directly, even as their function—the “emotional vapor,” I wrote, rather grandiloquently, as I’ve been a bit self-conscious about my opening sentences lately—was highly evocative and mysterious in impact. There are distinct moments during Kiarostami’s film at which not just the stakes but the meaning, the denotative legibility, of Shimell and Binoche’s characters’ relationship changes. Although you can pinpoint the exact moments when this occurs, this doesn’t make those moments obvious. They’re put across in small, subtle gestures that you probably wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking for them. This is in contrast, of course, with the rather dramatic tonal shifts and careening conversational volte-faces that mark the conversations between Binoche and Shimell as something peculiar, the very thing that makes Certified Copy what it is. Point being, every meltdown, every wrinkle in time, has a starting point, an almost imperceptible rift.

So, to make it absolutely clear: this is a film about a married couple, and although Kiarostami orchestrates the film in something pretty close to real time, we are not watching a series of linear events. To borrow from David Bordwell, the syuzhet of Certified Copy is not the same as its fabula. In other words, the plotline, the series of events depicted onscreen are not the temporally defined, single-trajectory story of “the marriage of the Millers.” As Bordwell tells us, art films frequently pry plot and story, syuzhet and fabula apart, this being the very aesthetic “work” they perform on their topic of choice. (I mentioned some other films of this ilk above.) Certified Copy, like some of the late Buñuels, doesn’t provide clear internal markers of this divergence. In fact, Kiarostami’s sleight of hand (and I apologize for that language—sounds like a parlor trick, when it’s really far more philosophical) is more radical than Buñuel’s, since the Spanish master would provide 45° pans or doubled performers, odd but unmistakable signposts that reality was shifting. (In this regard, Buñuel’s truest heir is, of course, David Lynch.)

8. What Kiarostami provides is a nearly seamless continuity, a real-time drive / stroll / argument / repose. But the question remains: have Shimell and Binoche just met, or are they a couple in crisis, one day after their fifteenth wedding anniversary, returning to Tuscany where they (perhaps) met, in the hopes of staging a second go-round of their salad days? Are we witnessing a doomed repetition, or a dress rehearsal for the marriage that may never even happen? My contention is that it is both and neither. Rather, Certified Copy moves the couple, and the film’s spectators, almost imperceptibly between two present moments. We aren’t watching, as Binoche tells Shimell in the café, a situation in which the middle-aged proprietress has “mistaken” them for a married couple (“I didn’t correct her.”) and then, inexplicably, two strangers have the fight of the century. There is a pivot point between early pre-coupling and late dissolution, that can be pinpointed to James’s comment that, “I live my life, and my family lives theirs.” And even this shifting time structure, retroactively, is not completely certain at this point, since, just like Binoche and the son in the first café, the incorrect, not-married “time” here may be one of divorce or separation.

A formal reading is possible that nails down most of the moments when the timeframe(s) of Certified Copy shift from an awkward proto-crush and courtship stage to the fifteen-year itch. One such moment comes when Binoche gets a call from her son’s tutor, and Shimell’s banal observations about how kids are lovable because they are irresponsible is met with a fury from Binoche that would be unthinkable from someone you just met. As she unloads her frustration regarding life as a single parent, it’s obvious that James is more than a random target. Another similar moment comes in the trattoria, when Binoche’s primping is met with Shimell’s crotchety rant about the corky wine. Some of this is a bit like trainspotting, however. If and when you see Certified Copy you will undoubtedly experience these jarring, emotionally potent moments for yourself.

9. But this formal structure is only part of the story. Kiarostami would have accomplished something quite miraculous, to be sure, had that been the extent of his achievement. After all, Certified Copy, with its fluid, “European” sense of cinematic time, is flawlessly executed, an astonishing feat considering that this film represents Kiarostami’s first completely non-Iranian, continental production. (One thinks back to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s almost equally wonderful French debut, Flight of the Red Balloon, and has to wonder just what kind of good luck charm Ms. Binoche is.) What’s more, Certified Copy is all that much more impressive for being the “radical departure” in its director’s oeuvre that is actually much more like a tangential recontextualization of the root concerns that have driven Kiarostami’s art for decades.

His earlier masterworks, such as the Koker trilogy or Close Up, also addressed the questions of original versus copy, and the process of time and memory as one that could turn originals into copies, or necessitate simulations, reenactments or, yes, works of cinema, as a means of achieving the truth. This work, which helped establish the very terms by which “Iranian cinema” would be understood as a unique mode of expression in the second half of the 20th century, came at the problem of authenticity from the other direction. Non-professional performers would play “themselves,” in a semi-fictionalized context, and in time the diegetic closure of Kiarostami’s own films would become porous. (The final shot in The Taste of Cherry, which revealed the camera crew, was a key breaking point, followed by The Wind Will Carry Us and its depiction of cinema as an agent of social alienation.) Video experimentation followed, some of it predicated on an avant-garde artist’s willful self-erasure.

10. That brief excursus by way of saying, it’s not as though Certified Copy represents some sort of “return to form.” It’s a bold refinement of Kiarostami’s lifelong preoccupations as a filmmaker. But that is not, by a longshot, what makes this film a high masterpiece.  Earlier I described the film as observing something I called psychometric time and space, a concept I borrowed from French philosopher Henri Lefebvre. It sounds more complicated than it is. But it’s significant because it’s how I want to distinguish between Kiarostami’s first order of achievement (making a masterful contemporary example of the European art film) and the far more significant second order (a work of human philosophy), that which in my opinion makes Certified Copy a truly singular effort.

How do we live together in couples? How do we manage to stay married? How do we stay in love, over the course of five, ten, fifteen years? Twenty? Forty? It’s a given that “people change.” It’s practically banal to say so. In the restaurant scene, James very insensitively dresses down his wife, who was understandably upset that when she came out of their bathroom on their wedding anniversary hoping for some romance, he was in the bed sawing logs. “It’s not reasonable to expect us to feel the same way that married couples do,” he says, gesturing out the window at some enraptured newlyweds. “Not after fifteen years. Things have changed! […] I’m still there! It just shows itself in different ways. You’ve got to come to terms with that.”

But we know all this. And it would be easy enough for Certified Copy to show this, if Kiarostami wanted to, with very direct toggling between Then and Now, or even to maintain this ambiguous, single-day sliding structure that has led to so many confusions, but to do so in a manner which avoids certain confusions, such as the final scene in the pension. Binoche seems to be in one kind of time-space, while Shimell cannot exactly “place” himself.

11. This is because Certified Copy is actually gesturing towards a greater truth about the lived, day-to-day temporality of long-term relationships. We do not need a time machine (or a place within a modernist film—not that different, really) in order to move ourselves from the beginning to the end, from innocence to experience, and back again. Each day, even each hour, is a constant movement. There are times when our partners present us with a glance, a way of catching the light, a specific manner of arguing a passionate point, of giving care to another person, or any number of indescribable things, that remind us of why we got into this thing in the first place. And of course, there are other times when we wish that they would go away and shut the hell up.

The profound insight that I don’t think I necessarily needed Certified Copy to show me, but that I cannot imagine taking in with more visceral impact than that which Kiarostami’s film confronted me, is that our time, the time of love, is a constant movement along those twin poles of innocence and experience. It can be linear, like a Theremin glissando, or leaping and jagged, like a 12-tone piano concerto. We have access to our entire shared histories together, and the external exigencies of our lives together send us off into the random-access wilds of this psychometric space. Needless to say, part of being with another human being is dissonance, the likelihood that we’ll spin off in one direction while they go off in another.

12. In “the best of times,” generally speaking, this is more of the exception than the rule. But it is inevitable, and this is perhaps where we can return to the question of authenticity, the injunction to “forget the original, just get a good copy.” When we find ourselves doggedly “not present” at certain moments in our lives, lives to which we are overwhelmingly committed and that are characterized by relationships that we deeply value, how greatly do we really want to accentuate these moments of disjuncture? Yes, perhaps we can intervene and make the moments into something else. But, what if we’re just “out of sync” with our own lives, for a fleeting moment?

Certified Copy would seem to suggest that we have two possible options. We can be “ourselves,” at that moment of disconnection. We can bitch about the wine, level accusations, succumb to what may seem to be our authentic emotions but what in fact might be the worst impressions of ourselves that we know how to do. Or, we could step back and recognize that we have temporarily fallen out of phase. In which case, it may very well behoove us to attempt to become a replica of our very best selves, the one that exists when we know that we are indeed most at home in the world. This is not to say we have an obligation to “fake it through life.” Only that we are really only approximations of ourselves, in other, sometimes better moments, moments we share in a psychometric space with our long-term partners, moving in and out of phase.

We may have to enter the realm of simulation, to become “good copies,” to make it all work. But if it’s right, we always meet up again, along the fluctuating drift of time.

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