There’s a playful quality to all of Abbas Kiarostami’s films, but playful in the formal sense — of an artist grappling with and pushing at the boundaries of narrative, of how things are represented on screen and how those images are interpreted by the viewer. These are philosophical concerns, ontological questions about the nature of reality, which I cannot pretend to be an expert in. And if the idea of a philosophical cinema seems a little dry, well there are times in Copie conforme when it does seem that way, although I wouldn’t want to suggest this characterises Kiarostami’s filmmaking as a whole. I liked his most recent film Like Someone in Love, and his Iranian features are wonderful. However with this, his first non-Iranian feature film — it’s set in Italy and is in English, French and Italian — I find my attention wandering.
The structure of the film remains interesting. It follows James, an author played by opera singer William Shimell, who meets an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) while promoting his book in Italy. She drives him out to a pretty spot in the countryside while they chat. When they stop for a coffee, the lady serving them mistakes them for a married couple, which they play along with for a bit, but after leaving, the line between play and reality becomes blurred. Given that James’s book is entitled Certified Copy and it’s about the idea that the copy of a work of art can be just as valuable if not more so than the original, so the play between reality and fiction in their personal lives becomes a focus for the film. In fact, hints of this married status permeate the film from the outset — some of the ways that James acts around Binoche’s character (who is unnamed) suggest a deeper connection, and yet at the start they clearly do not know one another: he signs her book before going up to speak while she and her son take their seats in the audience.
This set-up is intriguing, but it makes the actors’ lives difficult, and I’m not convinced they really overcome this need to try to play multiple different characters at the same time. The more into the husband character that James gets, the more aggressively domineering, patronising and snippy he gets, though at times earlier on he shows hints of this rudeness, while Binoche must flit almost schizophrenically between coquettish and angry, and all shades of emotion in between. By the end, it can be a little tiring to follow their trajectory. That said, I think Shimell (as the untrained actor) and Binoche do a fine job with what they have to work with.
There are plenty of antecedents for this kind of film, and having recently re-watched (and reviewed) Richard Linklater‘s trilogy of Before films, those are the ones I have most in mind, especially given the match of French leading lady with an Anglophone counterpart, not to mention similarities in certain aspects of their characters. Things get a lot darker for the couple here, making Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy, 1954) another point of comparison. There’s plenty too in the dialogue between characters that feels recognisable, but it’s oddly stilted. However, there is a nice stretch late in the film where James slips into French almost imperceptibly, implying once more that he’s become a different character.
It wouldn’t really be fair to linger on the comparisons with other films though, for Kiarostami is his own filmmaker and imbues proceedings with a strong authorial presence. Many of his favourite themes and motifs are familiar, and the film looks beautiful thanks to the collaboration with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. It’s just that as another experiment in narrative form, it feels a little arid. I may well feel differently about this film in a number of years; perhaps you will find me revisiting it with warmth. For now, I recommend it only advisedly.
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی; Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi; Starring Juliette Binoche, William Shimell; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 9 July 2013.