Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy plays tonight and Sunday morning at the 48th New York Film Festival. IFC Films will release the film theatrically in early 2011.
It’s been posited that Kiarostami’s latest film, about a man and woman who may or may not be married traveling through the Tuscan countryside, is a deliberately, nose-thumbingly irresolvable puzzle, that there are several possible readings, all with dangling ends that don’t connect. I disagree. There is one complicated and connected story, the story of a marriage that renews itself through effort. It is the standard screwball comedy story, or what Stanley Cavell called “The comedy of remarriage.” As he described these films, like The Awful Truth and Philadelphia Story, “In classical comedy people made for one another find one another; in remarriage comedy people who have found each other find they are made for each other.” This follows that same arc, except it is a trilingual European drama, an existential screwball comedy or, actually, a drama of remarriage.
A fervid French antiques dealer (as only a mid-career, post-The Flight of the Red Balloon, Juliette Binoche could so kookily play) takes a visiting British cultural critic for a day trip, and what also seems to be a first date. They flirt, argue and judge each other while constantly checking each other out peripherally. (The heavily reflected scenes shot through the windshield are some the best driving-on-a-date images since Pierrot le fou.) Eventually they stop for coffees in an almost empty cafe, carving out their corners in this landscape. When he rudely, too comfortably, leaves the table to take a call, the salt-of-the-earth Italian Mamma proprietress sees through their role play (in another language) and states simply that he’s a good husband, despite his faults. Binoche doesn’t correct her. From then on the couple discuss the problems in their marriage and alternately pretends to be strangers, in a complicit ritual, an endless courtship. The deception is carried out not on the audience but, knowingly, on each other. Yet their game is not enough to thwart each constantly disappointing and being disappointed in the other.
Binoche especially, credited as only “She”, seems to suffer the most, sacrificing her native value of upfront honesty in order to play his game. But, as the café owner so bluntly states, whatever pain she suffers from humoring him is better than not being married to such an entertainingly good catch. And it’s in the differing acting styles between this pair—not in the performances themselves, which are anything but subtle, but in the contrasts—in which the nuance of the drama comes across. The husband James is played by a non-actor William Shimell, an opera singer who alternates between flat handsomeness and overstrained Performance, while Binoche wiggles around uncomfortably from the strain of the roles she must play; she doesn’t want to “act” she wants to be! The casting of such a deeply intuitive, non-intellectual body actor in this role contrasts nicely with her co-star’s style as well as with Kiarostami’s own intellectual approach, against which Binoche is a perfect match. While the film starts out as deterministic, wearing its message on its sleeve (“Does art certify our existence?” the writer asks at a reading of his latest book, Certified Copy), Kiarostami lets his actors build subtleties of relationship beyond these themes.
This attitude and attention towards the details of marriage is in stark contrast to another NYFF selection, Tuesday after Christmas. In that banal Romanian adultery drama, marriage is depicted as shopping and appointments. It’s no wonder the husband strays when the sex is better elsewhere; there’s no there there in that marriage, at least that we were exposed to. On the other hand, in Certified Copy marriage is shown as an intricate and spontaneously created private language, as repetition, jokes and sweet compromises. The loose ends and disconnects in the film are the result of intelligent filmmaking about two people who decide to commit by being alone together. This exhausting effort to avoid a merge and to avoid using each other up, produces some confusions and blind spots, of course. But this couple—still obviously so attracted and amused by each other—accept these things about each other because being apart would be worse. If they can do it, so can’t we, the audience?