Having presented his latest offering, Like Someone in Love, at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which just wrapped up Sunday, Abbas Kiarostami is again in the cinematic news. This makes it a good time to take a look at the Iranian filmmaker's 2010 film, Certified Copy, which itself was nominated for the Cannes Palme d'Or and deservedly won the best actress prize there for its star, Juliette Binoche.
Kiarostami's films are not known for their simplistic narratives. For example, his ground-breaking Close-Up from 1990, still arguably his best film, is a sort of documentary/fiction hybrid about real-life movie fan Ali Sabzian, who pretends to be real-life filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf so that he can gain admittance into the home of a family who is under the impression that he is there to film part of his next movie in their house. His ruse is discovered and he is arrested. Through the course of the film, the actual people involved in the incident re-enact the events that transpired, we see footage of the trial, and ultimately, the real Makhmalbaf meets Sabzian and they ride off together - and that's just the most basic description of what happens in this film!
Certified Copy similarly takes storytelling expectations and, along with normal notions of character development, throws them out the window. Here, Binoche plays Elle, an admirer of writer James Miller, played by William Shimell. Miller is promoting his latest work, about the pluses and minuses of a copy versus its original. It's basically a question of worth; is something fake, in some way, as valuable as something authentic? Elle expresses her admiration for the author and the two meet. They set off on a car ride and end up in a small Italian town. Along the way, as they discuss his work and its implications, their association changes. But does it really? They appear to be strangers, in the beginning at least. But, prompted by a waitress's apparently mistaken assumption, they start to role play as if they were a married couple, though they're not … right? They carry on like this, talking about the status of their relationship and their (fictional?) family. Eventually, this facade becomes more and more authentic, yet also more fragile. They genuinely appear to be a married couple, and their marriage is on the rocks. But they just met. How could this be? Is their relationship a fake? Or is it an original? These are questions brilliantly left open by the film.
What we end up with are two engaging characters and a narrative labyrinth that forces us to go back to the beginning and speculate about what we may have missed, if anything. Certified Copy is a mysterious film, one that doubles back on itself and prods the audience into second guessing its usual pattern of film reception and its practice of blindly accepting what is put forth. It's a typical art film device: a self-consciously provocative narrative, a story of intrigue told in an intriguing way.
Having been directing since the early 1970s, Kiarostami has made some remarkable movies (some, unfortunately, still unavailable in America). His best include the back-to-back Taste of Cherry (1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), two outstanding films by anyone's standards. Subsequently, he's become an international film sensation, if not always one well-received in his home country. He's a director who's every new film yields something exciting and unexpected. He has worked in documentary – his 2001 film ABC Africa is extraordinary – and he's went even further than the films so far mentioned when it comes to daring film structure: Ten, from 2002, follows an Iranian woman as she drives various passengers around Tehran, the camera never leaving its vantage point of inside the car, looking at either her or the passenger; Shirin (2008) is comprised solely of close-ups of 114 famous actresses' faces as they watch and react to a performance of the epic poem "Khosrow and Shirin."
In an era of the formulaic and predictable, Kiarostami brings continual freshness and vitality to the world cinema scene. Now, thanks to a recently released Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-ray, which also features his 1977 film The Report, an interview with the filmmaker, and an Italian documentary on the making of Certified Copy, even more film lovers can explore the marvels this director has to offer.