Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Place "spacious and strange": Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy

(Note: My essay on Kiarostami's follow-up companion film, Like Someone in Love, may be found here: )

In the puzzlement and bewilderment of mind in which I found myself after watching Abbas Kiarostami's 2010 film, Certified Copy, I began thinking of essayist and novelist Pico Iyer’s recent piece in the LA Times, “The Writing Life: The point of the long and winding sentence.”  In it, Iyer considers our position “in the privileged world” where we “have access to more information than we know what to do with” and where we manage that information by reducing it to “a sound bite or a bumper sticker,” bits and pieces that are easily categorized, easily managed.  As much as Iyer admires the short pithiness of Hemingway sentence, he offers for our consideration the complexity of a long sentence, that complexity as a protest and counter to our reductionist tendencies.  The long sentence, that --

“collection of clauses that is so many chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory and imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or.  With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions . . . and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying 'Open wider' so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).”

As Iyer imagines this “long and winding sentence” as a sort of antidote for these times when “we’ve got speed and shortness up the wazoo” and where we manage information rather than reflect on the nuanced significances of it, I think Kiarostami’s worlds –as I’ve experienced them so far in Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, and now, Certified Copy—worlds created on the screen rather than on the page, offer a similar antidote.  All of these films resist “trite conclusions,” easy “reductionism,” and “either/or” ideas. None of these films offer a traditional plot; they feel long, wending their ways as meandering streams with no decisive signs to tell us whether we are wending—as we go with them—north, south, east, or west.  We are left to ourselves in a way to fill in the gaps as we can or as we will, to look for small signs or subtle patterns, to puzzle over contradictions or ambiguity. 

Certified Copy is not without signs and patterns, and we are invited, even, to see in the contradictions a particular sign and a particular pattern though I think, in the end, I cannot say for sure if I’ve delineated the pattern, correctly read the sign.  The title—the most obvious sign in the text—first tempts us to say, “this is what the film is about.”  But what does it mean and to what does it refer?  Within that title is contradiction, a contradiction the film explores, overturns, and further complicates on its winding way.  A “certified copy” is a reproduction, duplicate, or imitation of an original thing – perhaps a document, perhaps a piece of art, perhaps something else—a reproduction that has been declared authentic and complete, saying, “this thing is exactly like the original.”   The question is, how can a copy of anything be certified?  How can it be authentic and complete if it isn’t the thing itself?  But we might also ask, if a copy looks exactly like its original, why do we need the original?  What value does the original hold?  What value does the copy hold? How can we tell? Who decides?

While these questions might seem to be best suited for a philosophical and ontological or art-related treatise or lecture, Kiarostami playfully explores in his film these questions by way of duplicated and duplicating images and characters, unresolved conversations, and a key relationship, a relationship that within itself is a mystery, a contradiction, something that parallels the central contradiction of the film.  

The films opens with what perhaps may seem to be the very lecture suited to the subject: a British writer, James Miller (William Shimell), who has just published a book entitled Certified Copy, has come to Italy to promote its Italian translation, and he speaks to a gathered group about his book’s subject, a subject centering on the claim that a copy of a work of art has the value of its original.  
Several things distract us from attending to his lecture, however, and the distractions, the invasions, invite us into the subject by way of other, less direct, avenues:  during the lecture a woman—whom we come to know as Elle, a Frenchwoman (Juliet Binoche) —and her sullen pre-teen son come late to the lecture, disrupting our concentration.  While at first, we feel annoyed, trying to listen to the lecture but being drawn into watching the woman, we must stop to consider that Kiarostami wants that concentration to be disrupted; the camera focuses not on Miller, but on the woman and her son, the woman whispering to her son and trying to appease his clear distaste for being there and the woman whispering for unknown reasons to the man next to her and to the woman behind her.  She and her son leave before the lecture is finished, and, in a further distraction, Miller’s own phone rings; he briefly apologizes but makes no hesitation to answer the call and talk for a moment –he himself has interrupted his lecture. 

What we are to make of the distractions exactly, I can’t say, but we are clearly led away from the lecture – the straightforward point by point presentation – and forced to look in another direction, and not just one other direction, but many other directions, as if to say, we cannot really get at this thing this way; we’re going to have to try to come at it elliptically, perhaps more slyly and playfully. A lecture won’t do it, not for us.  

A similar scene, centering on an explanation and a distraction from that explanation, is repeated later when Elle, who becomes companion to James for the majority of the film, takes James to see a piece of art thought to be an original for many years but discovered to be a copy.  As a copy it nonetheless resides in the art museum and when Elle and James stand before it, a tour guide comes along to explain the painting’s origins to his group.   Elle and James listen, the multi-lingual Elle translating the Italian into English for James.  But her translation is no translation for us; it merely distracts us from the content of the tour guide’s description as we watch James and Elle themselves.  And James, himself, wanders away midway through, uninterested; “I’ve seen others like it,” he says.  And so while we have had another chance here at a sort of straightforward discourse about a copy, a certified copy, if you will, Kiarostami keeps us from engaging in that explanation; we remain with James and Elle, a pair whose relationship, from its beginning stages, confuses and intrigues us and leads us, perhaps, into a more elusive and more human reflection on the meanings and contradictions present within the notion of a “certified copy.”

Throughout the film, their relationship, its exact nature, constantly elides our grasp.  As the film opens, it seems clear that Elle and James are strangers; she’s come to buy books and listen to writers. James interests her particularly, and she buys several of his books so that she may give signed copies as gifts—and her son teases her about her interest.    Elle offers to spend the day with James, and when he accepts, their initial interactions play like those of two strangers.  But later, a shift occurs, and their relationship is reinterpreted for us as something with a long and intimate history, a marriage, in fact.  Later yet, when we seem to have settled on an identify for them as a married couple, James acts as if he has no memory of certain key moments and places in their married history, moments and places anyone would remember.  Befuddlement sets in when we try to reconcile these varying versions of their relationship; are they strangers or are they husband and wife?  Is their relationship real, or is it only a play at something real?  The film teases us; we long to know which is which; we yearn to reconcile what we have seen with something coherent, something of one piece. 

But in that longing to know, our desire to discover if the relationship is authentic, we must ask, why does the answer matter?  Why must we know?  After all, this is only a film; these are actors playing parts, and Kiarostami, I believe, repeatedly draws our attention to this fact, with camera angles that give us artificial or awkward views, or at least, angles that are uncommon, not the sort we are used to.  I am reminded, for example, of several moments in which Elle, looks directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall.  At one point, she is alone, gazing in a mirror, applying lipstick and choosing earrings; in another moment, she is speaking directly to James, but looking directly at us.  It’s uncomfortable; we are aware of the artificiality of the situation, of the fact that “we are watching a film.” 

But somehow, we still want to know.  We still want to know the mystery of James and  Elle’s relationship.  Elle herself, played so beautifully and naturally as she is by Binoche, we want to receive at face value.  How can we do anything else in the moment, for example, when James, relating a story of a woman and her son, brings Elle to tears?  Throughout his narrative, she becomes more and more rigid, her eyes speak their vulnerability, and we know that she is moved by some deep and painful emotion.  But even as we are moved by her emotion, we are checked again moments later by some subtle element that belies the reality of the situation.  James himself seems throughout to be playing at a part, rather than inhabiting a person.  His role is perhaps intentionally played as such, that is, not quite naturally, by William Shimell, but intentional or not, his character brings us again to our questions about authenticity, to our discomfort with a suspected artificiality, to our desire to know what is real and what isn’t. 

The film repeatedly and throughout plays with our sense of the real and the artificial, the genuine and the copy.  We see our characters time and again in mirrors or in and through reflections.  
Even the very multiplicity of languages in the film – English, French, Italian – switching from one to another, often mid-conversation –reminds us that a translation of a thing is only an estimate of the original thing.  Language gets at something but does not equal the thing itself.  In one scene, Elle engages in conversation with a French couple visiting Italy, asking them to describe their feelings about a fountain’s statue in the village center; she leads them to James and asks the woman to repeat what she’d said.  The woman offers an answer, but Elle is dissatisfied, reminding her, “no, that isn’t what you said before.”  In the end, we are not sure what the woman said; Elle heard her say one thing, the woman says she misheard her – and we never discover the original thought, for Elle and the woman wander off, talking out of our ear shot.  Again, we long to know—though this stranger’s thought can’t really matter to our story—what is authentic: what was it she said at first? 

Early on in the film, as James and Elle drive to their day’s destination, Elle describes her sister Marie, to James, admiring her sister’s capacity for loving costume jewelry; to Marie, Elle says, “fake jewelry is just as good as the real thing . . . She’s a simple person . . . there’s no difference between copy and original.”  James responds, “She’s lucky; I wish I could be more like her.. . . I wrote my book partly to convince myself of my own idea. [But] she seems to believe in the idea simply and naturally.”  He cannot do what she does, he says, because “there’s nothing simple about being simple.”   If we, as viewers, were like Marie, I suppose, discovering the exact nature of James and Elle’s relationship, discovering the difference between the copy and the original throughout the film, wouldn’t matter; we could simply embrace what we see in the moment, taking it for itself, not worrying about the difference between seeming and being.  But we are revealed as more like James, discovering that being simple is not so simple.  We want to know because we want to know how to assign value; we want to know how to feel about one thing over another.

Can anyone, really, be as simple as Marie?  Is Marie, even, as simple as Elle describes her?  Throughout the film, our perceptions of a thing or a person or a sentence are constantly overturned or turned inside out until we are left with irreconcilable complexity.  And the film invites us to respond, to ask, How do I respond to a complexity like this, to this sort of conundrum?

Iyer says, that the long and winding sentence can give us “depth, the nuances – ‘the gaps.’” He writes that a sentence that resists our either/or tendencies and that “has room for certainty and doubt at once” both remedies the soundbites of our age and gives us something we long for, perhaps without knowing it: mystery and a place that feels as “spacious and strange as life itself.”  

I encourage my English 101 students, when they approach dense texts and when they need to say something in response to those dense text, to embrace what John Keats described as “negative capability,” that is, the capacity or ability “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  Keats, of course, wasn’t promoting throwing aside facts or reason, and I certainly do not wish my students to do so, but he was implying that when we have the ability to resist panic in the face of uncertainty, to remain calm when confronted by mystery, we then have the ability to dive into the complexity, to see a thing from delightfully multiple angles.  When we can embrace complexity without panic, I think it is then that we can relish the “gaps” and the “nuance” that Iyer describes. 

Kiarostami’s film, which draws me into a place "spacious and strange" and which challenges me to the same negative capability I urge my students to practice, still evades me.  I cannot here comprehend its spiraling multiplicities.  I cannot reduce it to a simple thing.  But in the end, I want to embrace its thorniness, its resistance to neat categories, and to let it offer unexpected resonances, as it continues to sit in my mind.


  1. Excellent crystallization of thoughts that mirrors a lot of what worked so well about this film for me when I watched it a couple of days ago. I'm not familiar with Kiarostami's other films, though obviously I want to go back and watch them now, so this one hit me as a massive surprise despite all the buzz it was getting.

    I'm ecstatic that you included the screenshot of the two while driving in the car, because I think that was the very sequence where I was completely on board with the film. The two are talking, and while they exchange bits of perspective and information with the reflections of buildings highlighting the divide between the two and basically having them dissolve in to the world around them. It added a heightened sense of importance for me that was simultaneously personalized while allowing me to engage with the universal. A truly remarkable film with a fantastic script, performances, and direction. Definitely one of the greats.

  2. Thanks, Rich! I'm eager to hear what you think of some of K's other films,and I'd like to catch up with more myself. The Wind Will Carry Us is in my top 100 films of all time list (and Taste of Cherry was a contender) - it's a work that resonates deeply though it sort of works below the surface, taking you by surprise since it runs along so quietly but nonetheless displaying emotional and thematic depth.

    I absolutely love that sequence in the car, too - the rhythm of it is so unexpected in all the best ways, and as you say, it beautifully mirrors the relationship, the larger themes.

  3. So, I'm having trouble with where this will fit in the book: alphabetical or chronological?

    (Wonderful write-up as always, ma'am.)

  4. If I ever put together said book, I'll let you decide. :)

    (Thanks, my friend!)

  5. Fantastic thoughts. I do think Kiarostami is intentionally drawing our attention away from certain things in order to observe certain things we'd miss otherwise. And I think a lot of these things are used to enhance and explore his idea of the value of a copy.

    There's a lot of the film that is murky that I'm enjoying struggling with over several viewings but I think the film concludes that the value of the copy is that it can still give the pleasure and the resonance of an original work. It can still give us that same impact and presence that often gets touted as unique to an original work.

  6. Thanks so much, James; your appreciation means a lot! Honestly, I went into the writing of this thing, not knowing what exactly I was going to say and fearing I'd get everything wrong - it's the sort of film that so challenges interpretation! But I kind of love that about it, too.

    I really happy to hear you think I've got something right in regards to the idea of intentional distraction - it was something I wasn't quite sure about but felt I had to deal with.

    I'm looking forward to more viewings; the more I mull it over after just one viewing, the more I am rewarded, and I'm sure watching the film again (and again) will be just as rewarding.

    I think you are right, too, that the film leads us to the idea that a copy does have genuine/original value and impact, even if the nature of that value can't be easily defined; there is something in the nature of a film/filmmaking itself (something to which K. draws our attention), I believe, that leads to the conclusion that in the artifice is the genuine - the two can't really be disconnected.

  7. Melissa, you're doing everything I want in a discussion on film in this blog. I love the way you use other texts as binoculars to bring what you've seen in a film more sharply into focus.

  8. That makes me so happy, Leslie. I'm not always sure using another text as a lens is the very best way to discuss a film, but it feels the most organic to me as a lit major, I guess - and it makes sense that you'd feel the same! :) I use texts I'm familiar with to understand another, new text; it's my way in, so to speak - and I love making those connections, finding patterns in order to shape my thoughts.