Certified Copy (Kiarostami, 2011)


May 23, 2011

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” (David Foster Wallace)


It is hard to witness the simple acrobatics of Certified Copy and not think of the films of Resnais or Bunuel (the appearance of a Bunuel compatriot about halfway through doesn’t help). This in itself isn’t necessarily a surprise, as there has always been an ad hoc thread of self-awareness in Kiarostami’s cinema. But the seamlessness of Certified Copy, which is its greatest strength, suggests that the Heisenberg uncertainty at the heart of this film is not just another post-modern widget tacked onto the script. Instead, I think what has always been at stake for Kiarostami becomes much clearer in Certified Copy – which turns out to be something along the lines of what Tillich described as “ultimate concern.”

It is also hard not to think of Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset set piece. But I think this is mistaken, as Kiarostami’s film is about something far more fundamental and abstract. It doesn’t offer us the luxury of Before Sunset’s ambiguous fade to black, which has always struck me as a get out of jail free card for the audience. The tough ambiguity at the center of Certified Copy offers no such escape, and instead only calls us deeper into the resounding mystery of its final shot. In the Linklater films we watch people shedding their carefully constructed identities and we are tempted think of this process as the essence of romance. In contrast, Certified Copy wonders whether this is even possible.

At an exhibition I recently attended, an artist had displayed a book he created by cycling one blank page through a copy machine a few hundred times. He then bound these pages in order on one edge so that an evolution could be observed. During the journey of this blank page through the magical land of Xerox, inexplicable artifacts of shadow and growing pixelated blobs began to accumulate. The final binding of the unit told a multitude of stories.

This same mystery of repetition happens in Certified Copy, in that two people are cycled through the machine of man/woman interaction until the film becomes cluttered with the ghosts of past arguments, shadows of forgotten fears, the accumulated static of our innate ability to talk past each other. As Ovid said, “We, two, form a multitude.” Similarly, the characters in Certified Copy multiply without being able to shed the residue of their previous versions.

The story is simple enough. A man has written a book called Certified Copy (“Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy”) and he is in town to celebrate the recent Italian translation. In this lecture we hear about the myth of originality and the inherent value of copies as constant reminders of the value of some original, actual thing. After the lecture, the man is invited by a woman on a brief trip to nearby Lucignano before his evening train departure, during which they continue to debate the central idea of his book. But then something alarming happens, in that the film generates a living, breathing example of their academic argument about beauty and truth. (Which so far has been intercut by stunning Tuscan vistas.) What follows is an increasingly heartbreaking series of Xerox-like artifacts that begin to crowd Kiarostami’s simple frames in alternating languages, forged artwork, mirrored images, memories real and/or imagined, etc…

During this unexpected transition, the woman kind of accidentally begins to pretend that the man is her husband. And this has led to one of this year’s most popular cinephile questions, namely: What is the actual status of the relationship between this man and this woman? What, if any, is their backstory? As we continue, it becomes increasingly, almost frustratingly ambiguous. Could it actually be that they were once married? Were they once lovers? Since it appears that they have just met after this lecture, what grants the stunning range of emotions in the second half its striking authenticity?

Some critics marshal arguments that they were once married. Others that they were once lovers in an affair that ended badly. Others pose the entire last half of the film as a Kierkegaardian mirage. I am going to take the harder way out and assume that it doesn’t matter. They were married and they weren’t married. They used to know each other and they never knew each other. It is important to let this oscillation abide in our experience of the film. We could think of Certified Copy as an emotional Rubik’s Cube, its characters inhabiting every known romantic configuration at the same time. By means of a complicated cinema magic, they begin to stand in for every couple that has raged, and embraced, and split, and reconciled – those who have discovered in “love” a complex set of contradictory feelings and responses that over time feel more comfortable than the illusory certainty of romance. Essentially, all of us. The odd narrative oscillation at the heart of Certified Copy obtains in our actual experience of love.

When my wife and I go out on a date, we talk about the kids, the bills, and the little things we haven’t had a chance to catch up on. But then we invariably begin moving backwards. We start talking about the cities and flats we have lived in, the things we have seen, the raw history, both good and bad, of who we are together. We immerse ourselves in a recitation of these shared biographical twists and turns. I think we do this so naturally because marriage is an act of mythmaking. It is an odd kind of storytelling that requires the authors to play many different parts (read: copies), the sense of the text emerging when these roles interact over time. But it may be the most complicated, enriching form of storytelling there is.

In an odd twist of the Rubik’s Cube towards the end, she modestly removes her bra (which had become uncomfortable) in the darkness of a church and returns to the conversation on the stoop of a nearby pension. It is a beautiful, private, seductive moment. I am not sure what happens here, other than that we finally notice the copy that has been missing throughout the film. The angry one, incredulous one, passionate, sorrowful, the occasionally civil one. All these copies of this man and woman have been at play throughout the script (almost all of which one can see present in our house, for example, on Saturday morning while trying to get the kids ready for an early tee ball game). But here we get a glimpse of the certified original from which all of these copies emerge in their alternate forms. The unexpected intimacy here is an image of the gravitational center that keeps all of these copies from just drifting out into space; an image of the simple act of  giving ourselves to each other.

And beyond all this stuff about long term relationships, Certified Copy is also a crescendo in Kiarostami’s career-long obsession with cinema and self-perception. I guess what we learn from Certified Copy is that this innovative impluse we found in the Iranian New Wave, revealing itself in Kiarostami’s tendency to ignore the fourth wall, is not just a handy political or social device. Certified Copy is a really important film not just because it represents the high point of Kiarostami’s art so far, but because it does something a bit mind-blowing: It shows us the transcendent pulse of what I always pigeon-holed as a political film movement. Kiarostami has always been onto something more fundamental, something that emerges from his camera as a means of thinking compassionately about other people. As it turns out, Kiarostami has always been interested in love. Not just romantic love, marital love, or an abstract form of social compassion. But love as the fundamental element of the stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories we tell about each other. For better or for worse, we are all histories of love.