The term "art-house" conjures a lot of preconceived ideas. Positive and negative clichés attached to the phrase are that these films are slow, depressing, honest, full of philosophical conversations and rather dull.
Depending on how you might feel about these films, preconceptions can be valid whilst other times nowhere close to being true. Unapologetically art-house, Certified Copy is a quintessential example of European cinema and full of all the elements that make people either love what they are watching or flee the theatre to see Scream 4 instead.
Directed by renowned Iranian director Abbas Kiarosami (Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us), Certified Copy is an intellectual puzzle that will make the pro art-house camp giddy. Replete with a near non-stop dialogue between two characters taking on diverse topics such as art, death, the folly of youth and literature, Kiarosami's latest is a meta-thesis on originality. If that sounds like a good time in a darkened theatre, Certified Copy is going to make you swoon as you bask in all the "art-house" you can handle.
James Miller (William Shimell) is on a book tour through Europe touting his latest work, a treatise on the eroding authenticity of art. At the signing in Tuscany, a woman whose name is never given (Juliette Binoche), is an eager audience member, but forced to leave early due to her teenage son's anxious boredom at the high-minded lecture. Before she departs, she slips her number to a friend, who happens to also be Miller's Italian translator. Soon afterward, Miller appears at her antique shop and the pair decides to go on a drive through the beautiful Italian countryside.
Initially, James and the woman engage in a light (well, light for the Kiarosami-penned script) back and forth as they get to know one another. After they make their way to a village to look at a famous forged painting, they go to a cafe. This is when things get complicated. Mistaken as husband and wife by the cafe's owner, the duo begin to talk as if they have been married for 15 years and have a son. The film begins to veer into unknown terrain of what is real and what is fiction, sort of a story within a story, that may or may not be settled when the credits roll.
Lots of Talk. Replete with a near non-stop dialogue between two characters
taking on diverse topics such as art, death, the folly of youth and literature, Abbas
Kiarosami’s latest, Certified Copy, is a meta-thesis on originality.
Certified Copy is literally bursting with ideas. Miller and the unnamed woman communicate about their lives, their opinions, their pasts; they bicker, agree and fall under the other's spell. At one point the woman states, "We're just meandering around" and that's a perfect description of their conversation as they flit from one topic to the next. Actually, there might be too many subjects broached in the film as when a good idea takes hold, the characters switch to another topic as they debate or try to change the other's worldview.
I love the deceptive simplicity of Kiarosami's visual style in Certified Copy. He continues to embrace the notion that less is more onscreen. The camera is largely stationary and he employs various close-ups that utilize the actors' faces to deliver a level of emotion when realizing deep-seeded facts about themselves. While not flashy, Kiarosami's stern hand controls everything we see. It's a misnomer to think brash direction equals more talent. Invisible, unnoticed direction is often a more difficult accomplishment for a director because it requires confidence, assuredness and a mastery of technique. Certified Copy is similar to other works by Kiarosami in how he effortlessly renders complexity. Only great directors can deliver so much by embracing this level of restraint.
The film is mostly a two-person cast with Binoche and Shimell occupying the bulk of the dialogue. Binoche was named best actress for the role at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and she gives a lively, multifaceted performance that is another terrific role in her career. Shimell, making his film debut, largely holds his own despite being in a different kind of stage than the opera world he is used to. A few times, it feels as if he is delivering speeches rather than "acting" a role, but he has a naturalistic style that fits with the laconic pacing and topics discussed as the story unfolds.
Kiarosami has made numerous documentaries in his career and has long been interested in truth and fiction in his movies. In the past, he's embraced non-professional actors and used documentary strategies imbedded into the faux-reality of his films, but never has he gone to such a level as he does in Certified Copy. In a film with so much discussion on what is "original" and what is "fake," he masterfully blends these two notions in such a way, the audience is left struggling to keep up with both of those ideas and to question what might have been missed. It's a fun thing to have the rug pulled out from under my feet in such a clever way.
While watching Certified Copy, a group of disparate films popped into my mind that ring too similar to not be considered as some kind of inspiration for Kiarosami. There is the obvious in the talk-heavy diptych of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Before Sunset and Roberto Rosselini's Journey to Italy, but less prominent is a film like Adaptation and its complicated, mirrored story line that Certified Copy also employs. As it burrows further and further into the concept of perception, fantasy and reality, Certified Copy makes its case for the argument that even if it is close to films that have come before it, that's irrelevant because all creativity is redundant, whether the discussion is about art or filmmaking.
Certified Copy is certainly not for everyone. Some viewers might be turned off by the fact the plot consists of two people engaging one another in a maze of conversation that is equal parts philosophical and perplexing. Then again, others might take that as a ringing endorsement. Your enjoyment of Certified Copy might solely depend on whether the phrase "art-house" causes an immediate reaction of aversion or magnetic pull. Put me in the art-house congregation if we're talking about this or any other films by Abbas Kiarosami.
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