Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Certified Copy and the pleasures of ambiguity

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On Tuesday, my wife and I went with a few friends to see Certified Copy at the Siskel Center in Chicago. It was my first trip to the Siskel Center since my marathon ten-hour viewing of Shoah earlier this year, and while this was a far less daunting outing, the prospect was still somewhat intimidating. Certified Copy is the latest film by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, whose Taste of Cherry—the only other film of his I’ve seen—is impressive but famously difficult. As a result, I was expecting a challenging night at the movies, which I got. What I wasn’t expecting was that Certified Copy turned out to be perhaps the best movie I’ve seen all year, and an early contender for one of the top films of the decade, with its many surface pleasures layered over a deeper level of tantalizing ambiguity.

Let’s begin with those surface pleasures, which are considerable. At first glance, the story seems simple enough: a French single mother (Juliette Binoche) meets a British author and academic (William Shimell) at a reading in Italy, and after hitting it off, the two of them spend the day visiting a nearby village, deep in conversation. What we have, then, initially seems like a more mature version of Before Sunrise, and it gives us plenty of time to reflect on the delights of Tuscany, expert cinematography, and movie star charisma. Binoche has always been a resourceful and lovely actress, and here she switches between English, French, and Italian—as well as between petulance and charm—with Christoph Waltz levels of versatility. Shimell, an opera singer making his movie debut, looks and sounds great, and perfectly personifies the older, charming, but cynical European male, who, along with Danish director Jørgen Leth, embodies the kind of aging man of the world I’ve always wanted to become, but probably never will.

And yet there are deeper currents here. Halfway through the film—and this is a considerable spoiler—there’s a curious shift in mood: after pausing at a coffee shop, Binoche and Shimell abruptly begin to talk as if they’ve been married for years, with a young son, and have just had their fifteenth wedding anniversary. Their dialogue also switches from predominantly English to French. No explanation is given for this change, which persists until the end of the film, leaving us with a number of unsatisfying possibilities. Either Binoche and Shimell are, in fact, married but estranged—Binoche’s son doesn’t seem to recognize Shimell as his father—and were playacting their earlier encounter; they have, in fact, just met, and have mutually decided to pretend to be married for the rest of the day; or, and perhaps most likely, something else entirely is going on.

The inescapable conclusion, to quote David Denby, is that “In the end, neither possible ‘reading’ of their relationship…can be maintained with any consistency.” This isn’t a movie like Inception, which, despite its ambiguous ending, allowed viewers to construct reasonably consistent arguments for their own interpretations. Here, whatever reading you adopt, there are always a few pieces that don’t fit. Certified Copy is designed to frustrate, but there’s also something strangely satisfying in its ambiguity, as long as you’re willing to accept it for what it is. You can think of it as an essay or allegory clothed in realistic trappings, or as a sort of playful game; you can analyze it deeply or leave it alone, content to dwell on its beautiful surfaces and performances. Whatever your response, though, to reduce it to a single reading would take away its peculiar magic, which lures the viewer into an ongoing process of engagement with the story itself. It’s a remarkably seductive film. And, by the end, you feel as if you’re married to it.

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2011 at 9:54 am

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