Saturday, September 04, 2010

Review - Certified Copy (Copie conforme)

Abbas Kiarostami's work over the past decade has grown increasingly experimental, so in the early stages of Certified Copy it's startling to note just how conventional it appears to be. The film is the story of two people who meet in Italy and then spend a day together, walking and talking, as their relationship evolves before our eyes. From that description, the film seems to resemble pictures like Before Sunset or In Search of a Midnight Kiss, but typically for Kiarostami, the picture subtly shifts its focus throughout, altering our perception of the main couple and imbuing their nascent relationship with a beguiling sense of mystery.

There's an air of mystery around the female lead too, as Juliette Binoche's character is never given a name. She's a French single mother living in Tuscany who has turned up to see English author James Miller (William Shimell) give a talk about his latest book, in which he argues that a good copy can be just as valuable as an original piece of art. Having been distracted at the lecture by her restless teenage son, Binoche leaves a note for Miller, suggesting they meet later at her antiques shop. From there, Binoche decides to take a drive out to the small town of Lucignano (leading to that Kiarostami staple, the in-car sequence, which is beautifully filmed) and while they drive, the couple shares a wide-ranging and occasionally flirtatious conversation, discussing art, love and personal woes. What we're watching here is a relationship taking form, perhaps with the early spark of a romance, but as Certified Copy develops, we begin to wonder if that really is what we're watching.

Do these people already know each other? Are they simply playing some elaborate game? What appears at first to be a playful conceit, roles adopted by the two characters after a waitress' confusion, subsequently seems to grow into something more real, although Kiarostami refuses to draw any boundaries between fact and fiction. He draws us into the drama with his leisurely pacing and long takes, giving the film a fluid feel as his camera follows Binoche and Shimmell through the streets, and in and out of cafés and churches. The director's mise-en-scène is a pleasure to behold. He makes such superb use of the space around his two lead characters, often filling the background with couples in various stages of their lives together, and on one level Certified Copy works as a meditation on the very nature of relationships. In one scene, a young bride takes a seat to the left of the frame with tears in her eyes; we don't know anything about this woman but the director invites us to speculate on her story in the same way he did with Shirin's anonymous female cast. Later, he stages a scene in which a man appears to be raging at his wife, although that is subsequently revealed to be a false assumption. Kiarostami has made a film that rewards those who invest themselves in his picture, and closely examine his skilfully composed frames.

There is, however, one unavoidable problem in Certified Copy, and it comes in the shape of William Shimmell. The male lead is not an actor, he's an opera singer by trade, and while his charming and reserved nature gets him through the first half of the film with few problems, his lack of experience is horribly exposed as the relationship between James and Binoche's character grows more emotionally turbulent. In a key scene, during which Kiarostami has both actors speak directly to the camera, Shimmell is as stiff and awkward as Binoche is vibrant and compelling. The gulf in quality is huge and potentially damaging for the film, but Binoche is spectacular enough to carry Shimmell in the scenes where he fails to live up to his co-star. Certified Copy is an opportunity to watch one of the world's greatest actresses at work, providing the film with a radiant, warm and complex central presence, and giving Kiarostami's picture an emotional anchor that is vital as he toys with our sense of reality and fantasy, and rapidly undermines our understanding of this relationship. Yes, Certified Copy is every bit as daring, ambiguous and accomplished as this great director's best work, even if it does come wrapped in a deceptively familiar packaging.