By Valentine Rossetti
Persian director and pioneer of Iranian new wave cinema Abbas Kiarostami graces the silver screen with his oeuvre once more. Not since the halcyon days of Through the Olive Trees (1994) and Taste of Cherry (1997), when his creative output was in full flow have we been treated to such visual brilliance, because from the outset, Certified Copy is very much a departure from the Kiarostami of the past ten years. Usually taking a visually stripped-back approach, he has now fervently embraced high production and given in to his much more eccentric creative desires. His ability to turn the mundane into the magical, to capture the poetic imagery of any surrounding and to link the spurious patterns of nature, life and death remains as strong and vibrant as ever. Possessing a certain artistry not shared by his contemporaries, for Kiarostami, the breath of fresh air that is Certified Copy is a glimmering jewel, which encapsulates all of his talents to perfection.
Taking the lead roles are French actress and all-round doyenne of art house, Juliette Binoche, playing the mysterious and coquettish She, and the British baritone William Shimell in his first big screen role, as a foppish author and homme du monde by the name of James Miller.
Certified Copy begins with Shimell giving a lecture at a Palazzo in Florence about his new book, titled ‘Certified Copy’. In attendance is the ravishing beauty Bincohe, an antiques dealer and gallery owner who, upon getting Shimell to sign a copy of his new book, leaves him a note inviting him to visit her gallery in Lucignano, Tuscany. Intrigued, he accepts the offer and so it begins. From a conversation on the theme of his book—whether an artistic copy can be as worthy of praise as its original—a most intriguing and evocative tale of intertwining falsehoods and realities unfolds. The narrative, a fable and a comedy, has Shimell and Binoche playing a child-like game of Mr and Mrs, a game instigated by Binoche, when both in a cafe, the proprietress (Gianna Giachetti) asks if she and Shimell are a couple, and she, without thinking, simply says yes. When Shimell discovers this, with some encouragement, he goes along with the fantasy. As the film progresses, the pair show all the traits of a married couple, with petty arguments, long reflections on marriage, family life, the future, and so on. But, as startlingly real as they may seem, we the audience are left thinking, is this marriage actual reality? Or maybe, a marriage which dissolved some years ago, and that they are now trying to rekindle? Or is it all just an elaborate illusion?
Binoche takes to her role with spell-binding vigour, having since her first lead role in André Téchiné’s 1985 drama Rendez-vous perfected the art of speaking volumes without saying anything at all. Titillating an audience with just a roll of the eyes or a flick of the hand gives her character a depth few other actresses can achieve. Her delight at working with Kiarostami, with whom she developed a close friendship with starring in his 2008 semi-mythic Persian language film Shirin comes across in waves adding an extra joy to the film. To much surprise, William Shimell slips into his role with immense ease, being one of Britain’s most accomplished baritones, playing the likes of Don Alfonso and Count Almaviva in ROH productions etc; one would never have expected his talents to flourish quite so eminently on the silver screen. Though, at some points, his nerves begin, ever so slightly, to get the better of him, he recovers with dignity.
When Certified Copy was still in its infancy, in another form, as just ideas floating around in the artistic ether, Kiarostami had wanted to set the film in Lebanon, yet on later reflection, he saw Florence as the ideal setting. In an interview for Variety magazine, Kiarostami said, ‘This film would not have existed without Florence’. This being his first European film, though of course not his first film made outside of Iran—that being ABC Africa in 2001—the influences were unashamedly Continental, with nods to the likes of Bertolucci and Antonioni. Most of all, it is the soul of Roberto Rossellini that permeates Certified Copy with an homage to his seminal 1954 film Journey to Italy.
Kiarostami has given us some quite glaringly philosophical themes to ponder: the representations of the self in front of others, the guards we put up and the falsities we create to project our idealised image. For Kiarostami as an artisan, Certified Cop is an advance, with far greater attention given to the narrative and a much higher budget given to production. It is, perhaps, his most playful and ambitious film to date.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/