Seventy years old now, Abbas Kiarostami continues to push himself and cinema in a refreshing direction. No space suits, wet suits, or aliens with big eyes adorn his images. The human face is center stage in Certified Copy, as it was in Ten, but here, sometimes the eyes of the two characters look right at the spectator, no off angles or tilts–direct contact, the thing itself. Due to his self-professed love of driving and conversing at the same time, many parts of Kiarostami’s films take place in cars (he thinks people open up more personally in such a situation because they are pointed at the road), and this picture does contain such a scene. But he also widens his scope as most of this film follows Elle (Binoche is never named) and James as they walk through Arezzo and other small towns of Tuscany. There a many hand-held shots following the characters through the quiet, hallowed circles and squares of the old world towns, but they are not jerking shots à la Von Trier, they float with a guiding force. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kiarostami wasn’t the one holding the camera for these scenes (Kubrick often did too, both being photographers), as he was shown doing in ABC Africa, his stunning documentary on the AIDS crisis in Uganda.
What makes Certified Copy a masterpiece, in the same way that The Shining, Persona, or Blow-Up are, is that it can’t be contained. The story is simple, but limitless. James has written a book about copies of art–how they produce the same effect as the original. Elle is intrigued by the author and she invites him on a drive. But a switch is thrown midway through–a snippet of which is in the second half of the following clip. [Because the film is a series of long takes, the trailer (being a reduction of Kiarostami’s grand scheme and no doubt assembled by US marketing agents) gives one very little sense of the complete film’s flow.]
After that scene James and Elle start to “pretend” they are a couple, but their real-life complaints and disappointments about couplehood are very much the same, so it seems they are a couple. They visit the hotel they slept in during their honeymoon, they laugh and shout (Elle cries), they speak of the rearing of their son (Elle’s son, or their son, is seen in the early part of the film). In the end some might wonder if it matters or not if they are a couple. Here is Kiarostami himself talking about the process of the film’s creation:
A couple of years ago she came to Iran to visit me, and very casually–not at all in the perspective of a film–I told her this story. The reaction that came on her face and the enthusiasm that she had when she heard this story just gave me the structure of the film. The very process of telling the story gave me the structure of the film. The film started to build according to the story that I was telling, but also according to my knowledge of her as a woman with her vulnerability, with her sensitivity, with what I knew about her soul, about her relationship with her children. This is how it all started. (Variety interview)
Throughout the film there are mirrors of the couple or non-couple with weddings going on, older couples walking around and an encounter with a French couple that ends with the man giving James an “unique” suggestion about how to “heal” his relationship with Elle. For all its seriousness, the film is funny as well.
Kiarostami consistently questions reality by mixing many meta-elements into his work (Close-Up is both a documentary and fictional feature at the same time). His films carry a taste of something fully conceived, something sat on for a long time, but also fully collaborative as the male actor, William Schimmel, said they threw out the script when shooting began.
Kiarostami is a worker, he is an artist.
An article about Kiarostami’s Ten
The section that follows is from the Eight is Enough article, an appreciation of eight directors.
Abbas Kiarostami 1940-present
The Iranian filmmaker majored in painting and graphic design in school and like Altman, apprenticed in television, but worked in commercials. Many of his early films have children as main characters with one film’s entire story being a young boy’s quest to return a friend’s school book otherwise the friend will be expelled (Where is the Friend’s Home). As characters walk up hills with switchbacks and other maze-like terrain, one gets the sense of the existential dilemma Kiarostami invokes. There is a documentary aspect to his films as well (he made many of those as well) as he frees up the action to just show old people taking tea or talking about the weather, though they have no effect on the plot of the film, but add a color, showing the Persian culture.
Like Ozu there is an incredible calm and generosity of spirit to his films. Violence is non-existent, though his most famous film Taste of Cherry is about a man who is about to kill himself and looks for someone to bury him. In the following interview he says, “I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice…I prefer films that put the audience to sleep.”
What Kiarostami shows in his films is that he doesn’t know. Everything is a possibility, including finding better cell phone reception in the country:
That was from the The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). Three documentary makers are in an ancient village trying to document their mourning rituals after an old woman dies but she doesn’t die. And they wait. The leader seen here (and he is the only member shown, one only hears the voices of the others) cares little about custom but only wants footage and by extension, the death to happen. Life goes on as he starts his car to drive up the hills, even the cows continue to come home. His banter with the ditch digger furthers his consuming stance. He’s wants evidence and he gets a bone. “It’s a leg bone, not a shoe,” the unseen digger says after he asks him whether it was from the left or right leg. The landscape dwarfs the filmmaker, but he can’t succumb to the ancient rhythms of the culture. At the end of the clip he continues to pester a child about the woman to see if she has died and he can get to work.
2 thoughts on “Kiarostami, Certified Copy, Kiarostamimania”
As I’ve said before, elsewhere, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is a masterpiece (while I’d certainly like to problematize that term, I also can’t find a suitable term to encapsulate this film’s merit) and Juliette Binoche is simply brilliant in the film, offering a mercurial performance at turns sharply focused and incredibly erratic. I walked into the film without knowing much of anything about it (all I needed to know was that Kiarostami directed it), and I was overwhelmed by its intense dramatic focus, its majestically minimal plot, its multilingual melancholy, its compositional play.
The trailers, which I ended up looking at afterward, are definitely misleading, if not downright silly, so I also suggest not bothering with them.