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The Reel Deal: Certified Copy

Abbas Kiarostami's latest may be terribly similar to other talky art films, but don't let that distract you from its originality.



This has really been the year for blurring the line between reality and fiction in cinema. Documentaries that may in fact be works of fiction (to one extent or another) have abounded, from the absolutely-false I’m Still Here to questionable Exit Through The Gift Shop and Catfish. But who says fiction cinema can’t also pose questions about the importance of truth-claims? Evening out the scale on the narrative filmmaking side of things is NYFF selection Certified Copy, the first film made outside of Iran by one of the giants of international cinema, Abbas Kiarostami.


Every review of Certified Copy seems to give away the crucial plot twist that emerges about a third of the way into the film; that’s fair enough, as there’s really no way to discuss the film without addressing it. That being said, if you want to know nothing about the film yet plan on seeing it, read no further. Certified Copy, set in Tuscany, concerns a dealer of genuine and fake antique art (Juliette Binoche) who sets out for a daytime date with a visiting scholar, James Miller (William Shimell), whose book Certified Copy, an essay arguing that copies of works have just as much merit as the originals, has just been translated in Italian. After seeing Miller speak about the book, Binoche (whose character is never named—she is credited as She) drops him a note, and they meet, seemingly for the first time, the next day.




After driving out of town, walking around and engaging in a variety of heady intellectual conversations (think Before Sunset without the pretension), things get interesting when She and James drop in for coffee at a local place. As James goes out to take a call, the proprietor engages She in conversation, mistaking James for Her husband. She goes along with it, and when James returns, he goes along with the charade too, and the two of them begin to pretend that they’re a married couple of fifteen years. But then things take a turn for the inexplicable, when all of a sudden it becomes (seemingly) clear that these two are, in fact, a married couple of fifteen years, and what preceded this was some sort of game of pretending to be strangers. As their day goes on, however, certain gaps in each person’s memory lead the audience to question whether the game was being played before, and they really are married, or the game is being played now, and they have, in fact, just met.




In effect, it seems apparent that neither, or both, is the case—we have here a magical realist film that presents two people playing two different sets of characters, blurring the film’s narrative line to a place where no logical explanation seems possible. Which, one imagines, is Kiarostami’s point—if the emotions and ideas expressed by the couple genuinely affect and move the audience to think and feel, does it matter if the characters are merely copies of real relationships, or lack thereof? It’s a surrealist game that takes no prisoners in its underhanded, subtle approach, underscoring the argument that James puts forth in his lecture in the beginning of the film: that real or fake, the merit of a work of art comes from the sensuousness of experiencing it, and nothing else.


One cannot fully describe the film without mentioning Binoche’s tour-de-force performance, which jumps absolutely all over the emotional spectrum, and rightfully won her the Best Actress award at Cannes this year. I had the chance to sit down to a roundtable interview with Binoche earlier this year.




Tribeca: So, did you conceive of your character as two different personas? Varying facets of one character? How did you prepare for such a complex role?


Juliette Binoche: I allowed the emotions, what she’s going through, to lead me. So there wasn’t an outside idea, that she’s making this up. It’s more that the emotions she goes through bring out who she is.


Tribeca: So it was centered on the emotions.


Juliette Binoche: Exactly. She’s the same character, and the emotions drag her. She’s not really in tune with what’s happening, and she’s trying to get an answer from him.




Tribeca: That emotional dragging is so powerful. It almost seems to drag her through different people. My take on it was that in some magical realist way, she was becoming different characters throughout the course of the film.


Juliette Binoche: It’s how the emotion works—it’s passing. They’re not facts. It can be true in one way, it can be true in another way—she’s just really in tune with the emotions within her. But he’s not playing the game, and that brings out these emotions in her, when he’s not playing the game.


When I first heard about the story, I was taken by it, taken with the idea of working through different realities. But when it came to the script, when I read it, I said, “How am I going to play this? This shit is insanity; there’s stuff in here I’m not understanding.” And so I phoned Kiarostami, and I said, “You know, what kind of neuroses does she have? I don’t know anyone like this.” And he said, “What neuroses? There’s no neuroses, there’s just you. Just play you.”


And I didn’t understand what he meant by that, but you have to trust that the time will come when you find a way of doing it, because if you start discussing it—Abbas is not about discussing a character. He doesn’t always know why he’s doing it, but he knows without knowing. I don’t know if it’s understandable. He’s not trying to find logic—he’s more into what he’s doing. It’s like taking a picture—it’s not for this or that reason. He’s just drawn by something. So when he said, “This character is you,” knowing he doesn’t like working with actors, and knowing he doesn’t like “acting,” then I thought there was sort of no preparation. Just being in the moment was what made the difference.


Question: So much of the dialogue between you and William Shimell felt so natural, like you were an actual couple. Did you play off of each other in any of those scenes, improvising?


Juliette Binoche: There wasn’t improvisation; it was all written. We rehearsed for two weeks, and I think that really helped us get into it. We shot in five and a half weeks, and because we went so fast—the sequences were long, I was panicking because I didn’t know my texts in advance, so I was taking, like, a weekend to learn what was coming—ten and a half pages, slow down, please! I knew that it had to go on an emotional coast.


Abbas said to me, “You know, the emotions actors go through in films are not real. You’re not in pain when you cry in a film.” I said, well, how do you cry otherwise? You can’t be just a technical tool, you have to put your heart and imagination and memories into acting. The body doesn’t know if it’s acting or not acting. For me, I think it really goes through the heart, the capacity to do that that makes acting refined. So when I had that conversation with Abbas, that acting is a reality—it’s the same thing as a copy versus an original. I thought to myself, Abbas won’t know if it’s real or not real!




Question: So you feel yourself transform into a different reality when you’re acting?

Juliette Binoche: It’s rare, but it happens. In one of the scenes in the café, because I had to stay still so much for long sequences, it provoked something in me. I think having to go through so many emotions inside, in front of this man, I really felt like my body was not moving but my emotions were moving as they never had before. I really think that was provoked by the camera, Abbas’ way of setting the frame so that there was no movement. When we were walking, yes, but not sitting in the café.




Tribeca: One shot that seemed particularly striking was when the two of you are in the restaurant, and the camera frames you front and center, and you look out into the courtyard, as if you are looking through the camera and waving toward the audience. Could you expand on how the framings like that brought out something in your acting?


Juliette Binoche: The way he made it up was so interesting. He wanted to have those two cameras, so we actually didn’t see each other when we were acting—each of us was looking at a tape on the camera, above the lens. It was bizarre, because there’s connection and disconnection; I’m imagining his expression. Your imagination is stronger, in a way, when you don’t have the reality in front of you. So it was helping as well as hindering.


It relates for me, in a way, to Chekhov, in his writing. There’s something about humanity, something beyond words, that he’s going through. It felt, to me, that there was something of Chekhov in that moment. That it’s beyond—it’s hard to explain. Perhaps because there’s a marriage, everything’s falling down, it’s kind of melancholic as well as joyful, you can laugh about it—it’s tragic but there’s nothing you can do. In a relationship, it’s what happens sometimes: you’re completely caught in a nightmare and you don’t know how to escape it. She wants to reach him so much, to be seen and be loved, to have some kind of back and forth.




Tribeca: So it was freeing, in some sense, to play off of so little, being there with yourself?


Juliette Binoche: Well, you’re not doing it on your own. You’re doing it with your ghosts, with your sensations, emotions, with a bunch of crew, with Abbas, with him. You’re not doing it on your own. But the gear is the truth of the moment.


Catch Certified Copy in US theaters March 11 for limited release. Find tickets.



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