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Of all the dense, intertwined ironies in William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions (some of which may not be ironies at all, but actual truth), the slyest but also least reticent comes out in a conversation between a young painter, Wyatt Gwyon, and the sinister art dealer Recktall Brown. “It’s a question of being surrounded by people who don’t have any sense that what they are doing means anything… If everybody else’s life is interchanged and nobody can stop and say, That is mine, this is my work, then how can they see it in mine,” Wyatt asks. The irony is that Wyatt is exclusively a forger, an incredibly talented one, mostly of Flemish masterpieces. His method, handed down to him, is to reject any semblance of originality – “The romantic disease” – and perfect the forms of the masters through repetition. Forgery for Wyatt is an act of metaphysical remembrance, with each brushstroke echoing back not just to the original painting, but to an elusive sense of autonomous reality that he believes must be buried somewhere in the work.
Certified Copy, the new film from the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kirostami, opens with the outlining of a similar idea in a lecture by James Miller, an English art critic speaking in Tuscany to promote his new book, which bares the same name as the film. “The copy has value in that it leads us to the original, and thus certifies its value,” James says, arguing that the investigation into originality is not just about art and cultural confirmation, but also as an “invitation for self inquiry.”
In the audience is Elle, a local antiques dealer, who leaves abruptly when her teenage son’s fidgeting becomes too much to bear. Elle meets James at her shop the following Sunday morning though, on what we assume to be a sort of prearranged first date. Uncertain of what to do, the two drive to a neighboring town, where there is a painting that Elle thinks might interest James because of its relevance to his thesis. From the moment the two get in the car, there is underlying tension between them, with both betraying habits of character that tweak the other in some small way. But then comes the turn: in a coffee shop, an elderly woman mistakes James for Elle’s husband, and Elle fails to correct her. Abruptly the two are, indeed, married, their 15-year relationship subsumed by extensions of those same arguments and misgivings each had when they hardly knew each other.
Approaching Certified Copy as a puzzle to be solved would prove fruitless. Like Kirostami’s previous work, the film is a minimalist narrative concept – in the same vein as a man driving through the foothills of Tehran searching for someone to assist his suicide in Taste of Cherry; a photographer waiting for an elderly woman to die in a rural village so he can document the morning rites in The Wind Will Carry Us; an unemployed movie buff on trial for leading a family to believe he was a famous director in the documentary/fiction hybrid Close Up; the faces of dozens of women filmed while watching a screen adaptation of an ancient Persian love story in Shirin – that opens up into a meditation on the aesthetics of cinema.
Akin to the paintings of Gustave Courbet, Kirostami’s visual compositions push and pull against both the optical illusion of three-dimensional depth, and the inherent flatness of the picture plane. The rhythms of The Wind Will Carry Us rest on long takes of characters in motion – walks through the narrow ceramic-house lined streets of the village, and distant shots of the photographer repeatedly driving up a red dirt hill for cell phone reception – in which Kirostami positions the camera to either exaggerate or collapse spatial perspective. In a counter-intuitive sense, his images are both remarkably dynamic and essentially flat.
A similar visual strategy is employed in Certified Copy, with the camera following/distorting James and Elle as they stroll through town, but there is also an extra attention placed on the artifices of the surroundings. The film opens with a static shot of a literal artifice, a table with microphones in front of an ornate marble fireplace mantel, and then revels in the lush textures of the setting throughout: the granite bricks and heavy wooden doors of buildings, the cypress trees along the highway, the green glass of windows and wine bottles, etc. The heightened tactility of these on-screen surfaces draws attention to greater surface, that of the celluloid.
Kiarostami’s modernist commitment to exposing the cinematic medium is bolstered by his understated technical mastery. His use of sound mixes that are both diegetic and highly impressionistic, and his feel for how the grain of the film – be it the gorgeous 35mm of Certified Copy or the muddy 16 mm of much of Close Up – captures light and shadow are compelling in their own right. But Kirostami’s commitment isn’t about technique so much as it is an intellectual pursuit, a consideration of the distance between artifice and subject.
His vehicle for bringing the audience into that pursuit is often literally a vehicle; nearly all of Kirostami’s films feature long sequences inside automobiles. There are unique thematic implications for each of these car rides – the disconnection a distraught man in Taste of Cherry feels from the world, the suffocating confinement two individuals feel in each other’s presence in Certified Copy – but they all boil down to the visual experience of watching the world go by while sitting in car. We do not have the same relation to space while driving that we do while on foot in that we are not forced to interact with our surroundings. Our vantage point is constantly moving, but it is also fixed, our propulsion flattening the world around us.
Certified Copy features one of Kirostami’s most exquisite car ride scenes, in which Elle drives James through town, the camera fixed to the hood of the car looking in through the windshield. As the car glides along, the sides of the buildings on either side of the street and a thin strip of sky are reflected off the windshield, almost obscuring the characters’ faces. It is a gorgeous surface that can only really be described as the mechanical reproduction of images. For Kirostami, the visual condition of the automobile is not unlike cinema itself.
The distance between artifice and subject is an aesthetic concern, but it is also a moral one. And germane to that concern is, for Kirostami, an interest in exploring how we as people consume one another.
In Taste of Cherry the suicidal protagonist, Mr. Badii, approaches first a soldier, then a theology student, and finally a taxidermist, asking each to bury his body the next morning, should he die over night, sitting in a hole he has dug, from an overdose of sleeping pills. Badii is cautious about how he broaches the topic of suicide, first asking each man a series of questions about himself. From those questions, Badii believes he can suss out an appropriate tone to take with each man, appealing to the soldier’s sense of camaraderie, the theologian’s obligation to God, and all of their poverty (Badii’s request is backed up with a large sum of cash). But Badii’s attempts to manipulate these men fail because his lines of questioning only reveal their social station, not their ethical character.
Like Badii, we do tend to define others only by their most visible characteristics, consuming evidence to support our initial impressions, and disregarding that which contradicts it. Such is the case with James and Elle. During their initial meeting, Elle discovers that behind James’s charm, he can be dismissive, distant, and cold. James finds that while Elle is warm, she is also flighty, frantic, and overly emotional. It is those same impressions that are the heart of their marital discord, with each one blaming the other’s flaws for their unhappiness.
What is missing from the screen is the process by which the characters have reinforced their impressions, essentially mentally copying out their initial reservations about the other over time. In this way, Certified Copy bears some resemblance to Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine – which intercuts scenes from the beginning and end of a marriage – except that Certified Copy does not clearly delineate its narrative. Rather the film layers the past and present on top of one another, demonstrating that they are essentially made of the same forms and feelings, but with smeared and blurred edges that do not quite line up. Trying to parse out a coherent temporal frame, or whether James and Elle are or are not married, really is beside the point. The point is in the reverberations.
All interactions are reverberations, acts of exchange. Once we recognize that, then we have to admit that our neat division of those interactions in to objective and subjective categories is a retroactive creation. The concept of objective versus subjective is so ingrained in collective thinking, that it is bracing to be reminded that it is utterly false. There is no way to internalize the essence of an object, to know it ‘objectively,’ just as there is no way to vacate one’s ‘subjectivity,’ as that would be a negation of the self.
Kirostami’s brilliance as a filmmaker is that he makes art objects that encourage the viewer to reconcile with their own subjectivity. With Shirin, he shows us dozens of individual women’s faces in close up, studying their reactions to a melodrama. While each face is different, the expressions on those faces are, at different points, remarkably similar and familiar. As an artifice, the human face is limited in what forms it can take. What is unique to each woman is that which goes unseen – the collection of beliefs and experiences and passions that are the making of a person.
But all we see is the surface, and surfaces can be categorized and grouped, segregated and subjugated. The belief in separate objective and subjective truths is central to every social fiction – be it gender, race, or sexuality – and exercise of authority of one over another. By calling attention to such falsehoods, Kirostami is a deeply political filmmaker.
Certified Copy is Kirostami’s least overtly political movie, in large part because it is his first fiction made outside of Iran (he previously made the documentary ABC Africa). When set in the streets of Tehran or the desert villages of Yazd, his films had to address the country’s authoritarian, theocratic regime, and the poverty that grips much of the population, out of necessity. But now that Kirostami essentially lives in exile, the sense of place in his work has altered, becoming more rootless. The Tuscan town of Certified Copy, while distinct, seems to have only a tenuous foundation in the wider world; it’s vividness draws attention to its artificiality.
Which is not to say that Certified Copy is not a political film, but that it’s politics are confined by the setting to the relationship between the two central characters – the politics are personal.
Both James and Elle seek to assert their worldview – both flawed, both flowing from different motivations – over the other, with the chosen battlefield being art. Elle rejects James’s notions about the nature of originality, because she sees them as unrealistic and counterproductive to coping with and caring for one another, while James finds comfort in the idea that there are “no immutable truths, no points of reference” without internalizing what that actually means. “Even the Mona Lisa is a reproduction of La Gioconda,” James says glibly, “And that smile… do you think da Vinci asked her to smile like that?” That may be an interesting question, but he never uses it as his own invitation for self-reflection. James never acknowledges that he himself is not wholly original, but a player of roles and a receiver of direction. As Hossian Sabzian, the impoverished fraudster of Close Up, observes in repenting for his crime, “We are all slaves to the masks that hide our faces.”
Two images of faces compete with one another towards the film’s end. One is of Elle, applying lipstick and putting on earrings in a restaurant bathroom. She paints herself hoping that it will cover up the strain and worry. It won’t, but she is motivated by love. The second is of James, reflected in a mirror in the hotel room where he and Elle spent their wedding night. A quiet terror creeps across his face. The shield of his ego is failing, but he is far too afraid to look inward and see that he remains detached from his own marriage as a way of proving his own identity. James is an echo, a copy, of one of Wyatt Gwyon’s most penetrating insights in The Recognitions: “There is no ruse at all that people will disdain, to prove their own existence.”
– Louis Godfrey