Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thoughts From a Red Rug - Certified Copy

From AFI Fest.
Certified Copy is an evocative, sly, intelligent, and ultimately poignant dream of a film. Abbas Kiarostami’s work here reminds me of the best of Godard and Antonioni. On the surface, the story is simple enough. A woman who specializes in antiques meets an expert who’s just written a book that questions the idea that an original piece of art is superior to a copy of itself. She decides to take him around to see various works of art before he has to leave for another stop on his tour in support of the book. Along the way, their conversation evolves until it’s become something else entirely and the nature of their relationship is called into question. Are they actually a long-married couple who’s merely pretending to have just met? Or are they two people who’ve only just met that are pretending to be a long-married couple?

In the end, does it matter?

Here, strangely, I don’t think that it does. Ordinarily, things like that drive me up the wall. I grow weary when I feel that a filmmaker’s pretensions toward making some kind of artistic statement overshadow what should be his/her commitment to tonal consistency. If you’re happy with what you’ve made, that’s great, but I need a way inside in order to be able to step back and regard it as a whole.

That’s part of what makes Certified Copy so fascinating. Even though the nature of their relationship is still murky by the end of the film, it rings true. It may not make empirical sense, but it makes emotional sense. I’m reminded of Buñuel’s decision to cast two actresses as Conchita in That Obscure Object Of Desire. The similarity is striking. Both are decisions that should not work, but do so despite the odds against them.

Juliette Binoche may be the most beautiful woman in the world. I can’t think of another actor, male or female, who can light up the screen like she can with a simple smile. It’s a radiant thing. She won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her work here, and it’s not hard to see why. Her character runs the gauntlet emotionally speaking, sometimes in a short period of time. According to IMDB, the film won’t be released in the States until March 2011, which would mean that her performance will probably be overlooked come award season. That’s terrible.

Of films released in the US in 2010, I can only think of two performances by an actress that rival hers: Carey Mulligan in Never Let Me Go and Noomi Rapace in the Millennium Trilogy. While I sincerely hope that both of these performances receive consideration, the idea that Binoche’s work is probably going to be forgotten is yet another sign that the way films are distributed in this country is all wrong. Something like Transformers (I know that this franchise is an easy target, but it remains so nonetheless) gets greenlit sight unseen and ends up in thousands of theaters around the country, while Certified Copy is pushed off into a corner. By delaying its release until early next year, it will be ineligible for most, if not all, year-end awards in the U.S. What’s more, a movie coming out in March will almost never contend for major awards the following year. Essentially, by sticking the film in that slot, it’s being condemned to fade away into insignificance when it should be given the chance to shine.

What might even be worse is the idea that, even if circumstances were drastically different, Binoche still might not receive any serious consideration. The masses in America have been convinced that they’re not going to be interested in films that aren’t easily found in local megaplexes. The idea that she won’t even be given the chance is something that makes me sad.

Certified Copy hearkens back to an older time when films were made with characters who were preoccupied with the questions of life, death, art, and the meanings thereof. 50 years ago, it was possible to make a film where the main conflict was that of ideas, not armies or souped-up robotic creatures, and have that film find its way to an audience.

When did we lose that curiosity? When did it become important only to provide thrills and chills to an audience and blind them with beautiful people? I’m not suggesting that films don’t, on some level, have some obligation to divert one’s attention, though I hesitate to use the word “entertain” as an overarching responsibility. I think that, too many times, the emphasis is on entertainment through titillation of the senses at the expense of enlightenment through stimulation of the mind. Certified Copy finds a way to entertain and enlighten. The majority of the film consists of two people talking, talking, talking, and it’s almost never less than fully engaging. It doesn’t NEED crashing cars and the like. No, it’s concerned with the nature of identity itself, and has the courage to explore the questions with intelligence and grace.

Can a stand-in ever take the place of an original? Is there such a thing as finding the right thing twice in a lifetime? At what point does a person’s love for something overshadow his/her head shouting that it’s not right to feel that way? By the end of the film, I came to a point where I’d come to a conclusion regarding which relationship of the two main characters was true and which was the illusion.

But, you know, I’m not sure. Still, I feel almost as though nit-picking instances of plot and story are to miss the point. Midway through the film, Binoche finds herself gazing into the mirror/camera as she styles her hair, chooses earrings to wear, and re-applies her lipstick. For her, it’s a hopeful gesture, as she’s hoping that it’ll be something that will be noticed by her husband/companion. The final shot of the film is of him gazing into a mirror at his reflection, but instead of making any effort to change what he sees, he regards himself tiredly, almost resignedly. He runs water, but never splashes any on his face, as most men would. I think the most beautiful moment in the film occurs at the conclusion. Throughout the film, they’ve referenced her brother-in-law’s stammer and the way that her sister loves how it makes him stretch out her name. Elle looks at her husband with a beautiful, tear-filled smile and calls him “J-j-j-james.” If Certified Copy had been released 45 years ago, there would be film classes taught about that moment.

Certified Copy is more than merely one of 2010’s best films. It’s one of the better films I’ve seen in some time. It knows something about life and has the courage to share it with us.

The heart understands what the head cannot.

4 ½ stars (out of 5)

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