Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: "Certified Copy"

"Certified Copy" is a truly an international film. It's a French, Belgian and Italian production, set in Tuscany, spoken in interweaving languages of Italian, English and French, and was written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami.

The reality of the story shifts with the languages, and if we spend all our time trying to discern the puzzle of its plot, we won't be able to fully enjoy its subtle charms. The acting is extraordinary, by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, and in the end we stop trying to understand the film and simply embrace the fact that it is true to itself, rather than any conventional understanding of narrative veracity.

That is the nature of the story, at least to start with. James Miller, a British author, has just written a new book bearing the same title as the movie, arguing that the distinction between an art forgery and the original is unimportant. Both should be embraced for their value as objects of beauty, not as commodities.

Miller gives a talk in an Italian city. He is middle-aged, handsome and charming in a detached, slightly cool way. What's extraordinary about Shimell's performance is that it is his first film role -- he's an opera singer by trade. I hope he makes more movies: His voice aside, here is a performer fully in control of his instrument.

Attending the speech, but leaving it early, is Elle -- although I don't believe we ever actually hear her name spoken. She is a harried single mother whose 11-year-old son seems to delight in teasing and vexing her. After forcing her to leave the author talk early to buy him a cheeseburger, the boy gleefully says he hopes she will marry Miller.

Indeed, they have a date set. An dealer in art and antiquities, Elle arranges for Miller to meet her at her shop to talk about his book. He suggests they go for a drive, and she takes him to a remote town to look at a revered painting that was later discovered to be a forgery. She thinks he'll be thrilled, but he's rather indifferent. Miller talks about embracing the emotional, sentimental nature of art, but he seems to have to summon it up for himself.

Their journey takes them to a cafe, where a curious thing happens. While Miller steps away to take a call, Elle talks with the Italian shopkeeper about the relationship between husbands and wives. The older woman (Gianna Giachetti) has mistaken Miller for her husband, and Elle does not correct her. She relays this to Miller when he returns, and from that moment on they talk and behave as if they are actually a married couple who have been together 15 years.

Are they pretending? Carrying on a charade to amuse themselves? I don't think so. Miller had stated unequivocally that he did not speak French or Italian, and yet he suddenly starts conversing in them flawlessly.

Whether pretend or not, their marriage is not a happy one. His work consumes him, taking him away for months on end, and she resents the way he acts as a visitor in the lives of his own family. Miller is different from the suave, slightly know-it-all author of the first half. He's distant and peevish, easily driven into a rage by an inattentive waiter at a restaurant.

Binoche is a revelation as Elle, the emotions pouring out of her face like wine from a decanter. Although she's lost some of the coquettish beauty of her early career, Binoche's face has more depth and versatility now. In both her roles here, she plays a woman consumed by a deep inner rage at being left alone so much of the time, when all she wants is someone to lean on through life.

What is the truth of the relationship between these two people? Are they strangers or distant lovers? For Kiarostami, it is both, and neither. He shows us how these two people would interact if they had just met in mid-life, and then draws a portrait of them deeply intertwined in a romance turned sour.

It's like an artist sketching a pair of models, first in once pose and then another, wearing one set of clothes and then switching. The circumstances are in flux, but the essence of who these two people are is unshakable.

In essence, "Certified Copy" is two movies, both lying to the audience, and both telling the same truth.

3 stars out of four

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