Monday, March 21, 2011

Marriage is a State of Mind: Certified Copy

Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy" is not necessarily a puzzle film that expects you to decipher its meaning, as much as I believe, a film that states outright that relationships and marriage are often a mystery that even days, months or years of contemplation will never truly uncover its reasons for being. It is an example of a film whose interpretation often depends on the person watching it, particularly how one feels about the relationships between men and women.
For the most part, "Copy" is a two-hander between a British writer James Miller (played by William Shimell) and a nameless woman (played by Juliette Binoche). Miller is in Tuscany to give a talk about his new book which argues that there is nothing authentic in art. Every reproduction is in some way an original and every original is a reproduction. He then spends a day with Binoche's woman with no name, who owns an antique shop, though she admits she knows very little about antiques. She takes Miller out for a day where they, first, debate the ideas of his book, especially when she tries to apply his theories about art to life itself.

Throughout the course of the day, these two characters seem to step out from the movie themselves and play the parts of a couple, possibly married for 15 years, to sort out whether their feelings for one another are authentic or just merely copies.

Of course, the first question that comes to mind when watching the film is trying to determine what exactly we are watching is real or not. No matter what interpretation one brings to "Copy", there will always be some moment in the film that will negate it on logic alone. The closest logical interpretation of "Copy" I found was on an IMDB board where someone claims they solved it in a dream.  (I know IMDB is not exactly the place for insights into film, but this was surprisingly smarter than their usual silliness.) According to this commenter, they believe She is the mistress of James Miller and that he is the father of her son. The characters change at the moment when James is outside the cafe on the phone, probably with his real wife. Possibly, they have been meeting semi-frequently throughout the last 15 years and acting out a game where they pretend they have met for the first time every time. In effect, their relationship is an inauthentic copy of Miller's marriage.

Yet, that interpretation still doesn't quite logically jibe with the first half of the film. If they're really playing a game with each other like this, you would get exasperated with them. There are no subtle cracks in their facades in the first half that suggest they really do know one another. One might have to accept that there is nothing logical about the world we are watching. Perhaps, Kiarostami's point is a study of the entire timeline of male/female relationships and representing it as taking place over the course of a day. There is almost a self-awareness that filmmakers themselves often present studies of life-long human behavior and emotion all within the course of a two-hour film. Films themselves are often a copy of real life, just as it is suggested in the movie when Miller says that even the original Mona Lisa was a copy of whoever was posing for that painting.

This movie is not necessarily a study of form. I have not exactly embraced movies or television that merely exists as puzzles to unravel. What truly hit me where it counts is realizing that the director may be suggesting that all relationships are, deep down, falsely idealistic copies of what we think relationships and love should be. It often takes a great deal of imagination and creativity to maintain them. As both characters begin to embrace the idea that they are a long-married couple, their behavior grows more desperate and needy. Their actions reflect a certain degree of immaturity and narcissism. Even though, they debate the ideas of Miller's book in the first half of the film, it is clear the less they know about one another, the more comfortable they are being together.

When they decide that they are married, the resentment towards one another reveals itself. Their disappointments as to what they thought they would get out of this relationship become more evident. Yet, they desperately feel the need to keep the charade going because this resentment and disappointment seems like the only comfort they have left in the world. Their lack of imagination pretty much prevents their relationship from ever expanding beyond their often petty disagreements. It perhaps is telling that her line of work is about selling someone else's "art", while he is consumed with the authenticity of other people's art as well. Neither of them are necessarily creating their own, except through the form of their relationship.

There was a part of me that felt that the film took place in a science fiction realm where these two characters would be forced to relive their entire relationship over the course of one day and, sadly, never learning from past mistakes and winding up in the same desperate place they wound up on other days. The 9:00PM train that Miller is supposed to catch is one that he was never destined to board unless he and his wife were able to make some sort of emotional progress.

I would believe how you see the film probably reflects how either hopeful or cynically you view the institution of marriage. Personally, my exposure to couples like the one in "Certified Copy" (and they are too numerous to count at this point) often makes me react the same way as I did to this couple. I often wonder if they keep playing this charade that they needed to stay together this long because there was genuine love for another at an earlier point in their lives that they are trying to cling onto. It also does not help that when they express themselves to each other about their needs, the other person clearly is not listening nor do they bother to acknowledge anything beyond what they want out of the relationship. It is not a surprise that these two characters communicate better with one another when they supposedly know each other less well in the first half of the movie. 

Perhaps, their failed marriage is an inauthentic copy of their earlier healthier relationship. Their relationship also seems like a copy of all the other couple they meet when they walk around in Tuscany that range from an idealistic young couple on the day of their marriage to a very old couple, both using canes, helping each other as they walk towards their front door. Then again, we also ask ourselves which of these couples are truly authentic. Maybe, like debates about art and film, when we often argue about what is authentic, we are often prone to declaring one piece of art a true reflection of real life while dismissing other art as inauthentic or, say, bullshit.

Yet, I do wonder whether "Certified Copy" posts the same question as "Exit Through the Gift Shop" did last year. How much of our interpretation of what is true and what is false is dependent upon a self-delusional, somewhat idealistic stance that the way which we see things through our eyes is the one true interpretation, as well as the sole determination of its artistic worth? Does this also apply to how we see our own lives as well as other's lives? I may see a doomed relationship in "Certified Copy", but others might see the ending of the film as a possibility these two people are capable of working out their marriage. It is even obvious that the two people in this relationship interpret its viability in different ways. I am reminded of how the last shot of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" can be interpreted as whether these two are trying and trying to make it work or merely repeating the same mistake over and over again.

To get back to my original point, "Certified Copy", on the surface, is a puzzle. But I do not believe that is what one needs to take from the film, as I think it would seem too easy for Kiarostami to just make us question the reality of his film, as I think he wants us to question the authenticity of others and ourselves when we step outside of the theater. After all, movies are just a copy of life itself, right?

Certified Copy was seen at the IFC Center and will soon be available on VOD.


Craig said...

Funny, I just read that IMDb comment too, after finally seeing this earlier in the afternoon. Like you, I found it almost persuasive, but not quite. Similarly, I just read a review from a fairly well-known blogger, who writes with a fairly well-known belligerent certainty about her own views, and who believes/knows that the Shimell character is testing his own theory by going along with Binoche's fantasy, i.e., that an imitation-marriage can be as authentic as the real thing. Again, it's a compelling argument, but it doesn't answer everything. I'll be writing my impressions soon, but suffice to say they align closely to yours. I admire your healthy respect for allowing a degree of mystery about the nature of the central relationship (Kiarostami's whole point, I would think) and I'm reflexively skeptical of anyone who thinks they've got it licked.

Jason Bellamy said...

Holy shit. We're very close on this. With this film, I wasn't sure that was possible.

I like your comparisons to Eternal Sunshine and Gift Shop. Obviously I completely agree that this isn't about figuring out what's true within this film but about being stimulated to wonder what truth really is and how much value it has -- in art, in love, etc.

bly said...

I think Kiarostami was commenting on the nature of art and especially theater, and its intrinsic relationships of copy vs original, art vs life, reality vs idea, etc, as much as the director was talking about marriages. The best feature of the film for me is the balanced exploration of art, the medium of film, and human relationships.

mr24b said...

Thanks for the great post – so many starting blogs seems to have great fresh content for a month or two and then nothing.. It sounds easy but hitting that wall can really cause you to lose interest.

I think #1 is the best – it’s so easy to focus on results..and then just wait for them to happen.
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ken said...

to me film was exactly as it appeared on surface a one day encounter realistically quite plausible btw 2 mature people who quite naturally have plenty of relationship experience she is superficial bitterly disappointed aggrieved w/long term marriage that seemed not unusual she wanted more romance mutual involvement he was more interested in his work related travel one can only guess almost assume he had one or more mistresses quite ordinary if not stereotypical marriage which unsurprisingly terminated she initiated contact invitation w/appealing man her own age hoping romantic involvement relationship etc. 1st part film abstract intellectual philosophical 2nd part they both realize mutual rejection her acting out her failed marriage she anticipates she would only repeat w/James he acting out his rejection of her needs desires demands for her ideal marriage James is smart/deep/nonsuperficial one nameless she superficial stereotypical unrealistic their resembling her failed marriage quite possibly similar failure James experience symmetry rounded whole therefore copy duplicate seemingly exact as the two act it out giving title

ken said...

back already for not commenting on art-ifice basic aspect film previously onesided comment realistic story aspect film 1st part film theoretical discussion about copies originals authenticity James abstract detached philosophical NAMELESS Binoche (1/2 night 2 nights?)eternal femme concretizes existentializes discussion into her unhappy life while James tries to avoid existential realm keep it impersonal abstract intellectual ANYWAY when cafe waitress identifies them as married couple film w/in film art/artifice duplicate copy commences film title suggests it must be exact copy of JB's marriage whether James exact copy her husband or just male rational apologist not entirely certain BUT he certainly gets pulled down from abstract perch "down & dirty" into mess human relationships "battle sexes" artistically themematically mirrors window reflections galore perennial "what's going on here?" Appearance(s) Reality Actuality "how does it end?" Kiarostami apparently not concerned w/plot type ?s but only w/fun house kaleidoscope of images reflections fantasies play acting pretense imitations mirrors reflecting back/forth quite like cubist story telling?