Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jørgen Leth

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

Von Trier’s obstructions

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As you see [filmmaking] makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone—just look at Orson Welles or look at even people like Truffaut. They have become clowns.

—Werner Herzog, in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

The news that Lars Von Trier has been expelled from Cannes for his decidedly ill-advised remarks is depressing in more ways than one, although I can’t fault the festival for its decision. I don’t think that von Trier is really a Nazi sympathizer; I think he’s a provocateur who picked the wrong time and place to make a string of increasingly terrible jokes. But the fact that he ended up in such a situation in the first place raises questions of its own about the limitations of the provocateur’s life. Von Trier, who used to be something of a hero of mine, has always been testing his audiences, but there’s a difference between a director who pushes the bounds of taste out of some inner compulsion, and one who is simply going through the motions. Von Trier, it seems, has gradually become the latter.

There was a time when I thought that von Trier was one of the major directors of the decade, along with Wong Kar-Wai, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong. Dancer in the Dark is still the last great movie musical, a remarkable instance of a star and director putting their soul and sanity on the line for the sake of a film, and a rebuke to directors who subject their audiences to an emotional ordeal without demanding the same of themselves. Just as impressive was The Five Obstructions, von Trier’s oddly lovable experiment with the director Jørgen Leth, which remains the best cinematic essay available on the power of constraints. (Von Trier had recently announced a remake with Martin Scorsese as the test subject, a prospect that made me almost giddy with joy. I’d be curious to see if this is still happening, in light of von Trier’s recent troubles.)

But the cracks soon began to show. I greatly admired Dogville, which was a major work of art by any definition, but it lacked the crucial sense that von Trier was staking his own soul on the outcome: he was outside the movie, indifferent, paring his nails, and everything was as neat as mathematics. At the time, I thought it might be the only movie of its year that I would still remember a decade later, but now I can barely recall anything about it, and don’t have much inclination to watch it again. I tried very hard to get through Manderlay and gave up halfway through—Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance, through no fault of her own, might be the most annoying I’ve ever seen. And I still haven’t watched Antichrist, less out of indifference than because my wife has no interest in seeing it. (One of these days, I’ll rent it while she’s out of town, which will be a fun weekend.)

And now we have the Cannes imbroglio, which only serves as a reminder that every director—indeed, every artist—ultimately becomes a caricature of himself, in ways that only reveal what was already there. That was true of Orson Welles, who in his old age fully became the gracious ham and confidence trickster he had always been, except more so, in ways that enhance our understanding of him as a young man. The same will be true, I’m afraid, of von Trier. The spectacle that he presented is even less flattering when we try to imagine the same words being said by Herzog, or even someone like Michael Haneke—men who are provocateurs, yes, but only as an expression of their deepest feelings about the world, something that is no longer true of von Trier, if it ever was. Von Trier, clearly, was just joking. But he revealed much more about himself than if he were trying to be serious.

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