Certified Copy

The Filmwell landscape is well populated with Certified Copy posts (like the wonderful meditations found here and here). And it seems appropriate that this film is considered and reconsidered at this site. As a new contributing writer, I almost feel as if offering a post on this Kiarostami is like a rite of passage into all things spiritual and filmic. And given that this week Arts and Faith published its Top 25 Marriage Films list–with Certified Copy coming in at #2, just behind what Darren Hughes calls its “original,” Viaggio in Italia–now seems as good a time as any for me to chime in with an essay I’ve long had in mind.

As a starting point, I want to couple with the occasion of the A&F list a post from last year that deserves to be read in full and then re-read: Michael Sicinski’s “Love Streams: Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy.” Near the end of his insightful essay, Sicinski suggests that the film is significant in that it is a “masterful contemporary example of the European art film” and, “far more” significantly, it is a fine “work of human philosophy.” It’s this second significance especially, Sicinski says, that makes Kiarostami’s film “a truly singular effort.”  He then singles out the essential questions at the heart of Certified Copy: “How do we live together in couples? How do we manage to stay married? How do we stay in love, over the course of five, ten, fifteen years? Twenty? Forty? It’s a given that ‘people change.’ It’s practically banal to say so.”

But it’s when he connects these questions of fidelity with the apparent problem of “authenticity” that Sicinski really gets at something that is, for me, essential to consider about Kiarostami’s film. His conclusion is worth quoting in full:

[T]his is perhaps where we can return to the question of authenticity, the injunction to “forget the original, just get a good copy.” When we find ourselves doggedly “not present” at certain moments in our lives, lives to which we are overwhelmingly committed and that are characterized by relationships that we deeply value, how greatly do we really want to accentuate these moments of disjuncture? Yes, perhaps we can intervene and make the moments into something else. But, what if we’re just “out of sync” with our own lives, for a fleeting moment?

Certified Copy would seem to suggest that we have two possible options. We can be “ourselves,” at that moment of disconnection. We can bitch about the wine, level accusations, succumb to what may seem to be our authentic emotions but what in fact might be the worst impressions of ourselves that we know how to do. Or, we could step back and recognize that we have temporarily fallen out of phase. In which case, it may very well behoove us to attempt to become a replica of our very best selves, the one that exists when we know that we are indeed most at home in the world. This is not to say we have an obligation to “fake it through life.” Only that we are really only approximations of ourselves, in other, sometimes better moments, moments we share in a psychometric space with our long-term partners, moving in and out of phase.

We may have to enter the realm of simulation, to become “good copies,” to make it all work. But if it’s right, we always meet up again, along the fluctuating drift of time.

These questions about love, authenticity, and the always-becoming self within, and without, a marital paradigm are what most resonate with me about Certified Copy. These are questions which guide my interests and pursuits in general; more than that, though, they are questions that for me come with, to some degree,  inbuilt answers that give shape to my life’s direction. So with great admiration for Sicinski’s essay, I want to attempt to go a few steps further with this particular line of thought.

Sicinski references a few philosophers in his piece, and I’m going to begin by following that trend in a more direct, sustained manner, because I agree with him: Certified Copy is a profound work of “human philosophy.” Long before reading his essay, my plan was to consider Kiarostami’s film in such a way that takes Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s book, The Ethics of Authenticity, as a frame of reference. As a diagnostician of the conditions which characterize the late-modern West and the history of ideas that, in part, gave rise to those conditions, Taylor has few peers. In The Ethics of Authenticity, he provides a riveting account of what “authenticity” has come to mean, and in view of its crudest forms, he offers that if it is to be a virtue that isn’t self-defeating, it is in need of some definitional retrieval.

Taylor notes that as a distinct ethic to be realized, “authenticity is something relatively new and peculiar to modern culture” (25). He takes as its starting point of development the eighteenth century when there was a particular inwardness emphasized in determining moral sensibility: “[U]nderstanding right and wrong was not a matter of dry calculation, but was anchored in our feelings. Morality has, in a sense, a voice within. The notion of authenticity develops out of a displacement of the moral accent in this idea” (26). In other words, what started as the notion of being attuned to our inner selves to discern right and wrong became a moral quest to merely be in tune with our inner depths—our true selves–for its own sake. Taylor suggests that this is in sharp contrast with previous conceptions of achieving our true selves, which thought that connecting with sources exterior to the self were of utmost importance. Though, of course, the two emphases have often been construed as compatible.

Taylor connects the ideal of authenticity with two other important modern ideals by tracing the influence of Rousseau and Herder, in particular. With Rousseau, what Taylor calls “self-determining freedom” took on a particular importance. It is an ideal that says “I am free when I decide for myself what concerns me, rather than being shaped by external influences” (27). And with Herder, “each of us has an original way of being human. . . . There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s” (28-9). Thus, Taylor sums up the ethic of authenticity, in its most influential iteration, this way: “Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself,” and, then, Taylor warns that this modern ethic is also foundational for its “most degraded, absurd, or trivialized forms.” With these devolved forms, he has in mind Laschian narcissism—“’doing your own thing’ or ‘finding your own fulfillment’” (29).

What makes Taylor’s rebuttal of authenticity’s crudest forms effective is how he invokes Bakhtin in a way that reveals quests for authenticity qualified by a narcissistic impulse as inherently self-defeating. Taylor places an emphasis on human life’s “fundamentally dialogical character,” and suggests that “[w]e become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining an identity through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression” (33). However, that “we are inducted into these [languages] with [significant] others” is not just a fact of their “genesis, which can be ignored later on” (33). He remarks that “our situation to some extent in our culture” is that “[w]e are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things, to a considerable degree through solitary reflection. But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity” (33). This individualistic impulse “forgets how our understanding of the good things in life can be transformed by our enjoying them in common with people we love, how some goods become accessible to us only through such common enjoyment” (34). Noting, too, that our feelings, in themselves, are insufficient grounds for determining significance and that our choices, in themselves, cannot assign worth, Taylor summarizes the issue this way:

I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself, would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters. Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial. Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands. (40-1)

This is but a brief and narrowed sketch of Taylor’s much more comprehensive and layered argument, but it will suffice as a background for considering the issues at stake in Certified Copy–particularly as it relates to the apparent (not actual) incompatibility of authenticity and fidelity. For, as Taylor notes, “[o]n the more intimate level, [authenticity] fosters a view of relationships in which these ought to subserve personal fulfillment. The relationship is secondary to the self-realization of the partners. On this view, unconditional ties, meant to last for life, make little sense” (44).

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In a pivotal scene early in the film, James (William Shimell) and his unnamed companion-of-sorts (Juliette Binoche–I’m going to refer to her as Binoche) stop by a cafe to get a drink and chat. James eventually steps outside for a moment to take a phone call. Inside, we get the first significant “are they or aren’t they?” moment, regarding whether or not James and Binoche have been married for fifteen years, when a server in the cafe engages Binoche about their relationship as if they’ve been married for years. To this point in the film, particularly if it’s one’s first time seeing it, the couple has likely come off more like acquaintances or casual friends. One detail about the conversation between the two women in this particular scene that struck me on a recent viewing is the revelation that Binoche has learned James’s English language, while James has not learned her native tongue; Binoche then concludes, “He’s not into language. He’s not into anything except himself and his job.” What’s insinuated here is that James hasn’t learned Binoche’s language in the sense that he hasn’t been concerned enough with knowing her because he’s too wrapped up in being himself. Couched within the “dialogical” in the way that it is, this instance is one of many in which the possibility of devotion to significant others is set in peril amidst the individual quest for “authenticity” and “self-determining freedom.”

And, in mentioning this scene first, I think it’s worth noting at the outset that I’m going to take the view that Sicinski lays out which says, effectively, that the question of “are they or aren’t they?” isn’t really the issue; in fact, it’s probably best to say that it’s neither (both?) in that it’s possibly not even a fixed moment in their relationship. I think he’s right that this is a time-bending film, the likes of which emphasizes the tension at stake between fidelity/authenticity in that we, as human beings, are always changing in the sense that we’re becoming someone. So, too, are our most significant relationships on a trajectory toward some qualitative state. And the trajectory isn’t always neat, either. The ups and downs are mixed in sometimes without observable rhyme or reason. In other words, during the span of their walk together, James and Binoche are presenting us with different stages in the history of their relationship.  Sicinski’s reading is convergent with my colleague Michael Leary’s contention that Kiarostami is concerned with persons as “histories of love.” Building on Sicinski and Leary, but streamlined to my specific considerations, my point of reference is that it is possible in a committed relationship, like a marriage fifteen years in, that the couple can become like “strangers” to one another. This is but one way that Certified Copy recalls Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy.

During the course of their day together, James and Binoche consistently come across a wedding celebration at various stages of its festivities. While Binoche has a penchant for swooning at the sight of a just-married couple, James is more given to a realist, if slightly dour, caution: “If only they knew the troubles that are coming. Things change. How will they last?” The statement is a microcosm of the issues at stake, but, coming from James, it’s more like a pessimistic warning than genuine wisdom. Later, James says that it would “be stupid of us to ruin our lives for an ideal,” and, in a sense, he’s right to warn against Binoche’s tendency to idealize. People do change. Things are complicated. Life is hard. But what has not yet entered James’s purview of analysis is the possibility that one’s life might be worth “giving up” for another person, if not an “ideal.” The paradoxical love that says in giving one’s life one might gain it is not a possibility from James’s detached point of view. Instead, such a scenario would be ruinous.

At a particular point during their journey–during a moment that seems as if it comes from years of experience–Binoche calls out James for his philosophy that says “my family lives their lives and I live mine.” She retorts, “What kind of philosophy is that? Bull***.” James then, referring to problems between Binoche and her son, contends that “ultimately, people must live their lives for themselves.” Binoche’s response gets at the crux of the issue with force: “You might be living your own life, but you’re both ruining mine.” Earlier in the film, in the midst of a similar argument, Binoche reprimands James in way that’s important to consider. She says that his philosophy of “just have fun” might “sound good in books,” but doesn’t “ring true with reality when you’re in it.” Some truths, some ideas, some abstracted thoughts only make sense, or fall apart, within the lived experience of daily life. As persons, some truths are not apprehended–realized–until committed to, or embodied, or, until we give ourselves to them.

So what is it that we can give ourselves to? Better yet, is there a “who” we can give ourselves to that might reconcile, or make a way for, the tension between fidelity and authenticity? Put another way that recalls and perhaps sharpens Sicinski’s question: how do we be our “best copy” when our desires are at conflict with ourselves, and what is our frame of reference for what constitutes that “best copy?” Is there an original outside of ourselves that we image? Does this relate to what it means to “feel at home in the world?”

Sicinski pauses on the question of fidelity and authenticity and let’s it hang in the air at the end of his piece. And, indeed, there’s a sense in which Certified Copy ends on a question, but I don’t think it does so in a perplexing way (which is not to say that the end of Sicinski’s essay is perplexing). Instead, I think the “answer”–likened to a mysterious truth–is implied in the question that James is presented with as he looks into the mirror at the end of the film. In terms of sheer repetition, if there’s one recurrence that rivals the consistent presence of mirrors, images, and copies, it’s the church bells that persist amidst the film’s soundtrack. And in this final moment of James looking in the mirror, it’s undoubtedly important that what he hears is church bells. Does it ring true?

Near the end of the film, after a particularly difficult fight at dinner, Binoche enters a church while James hesitates. Binoche returns, and James says, “I don’t think you used to go to church.” James thinks he saw her praying, and she says that that she had to take her bra off because she “couldn’t breathe anymore” and “felt oppressed” (note: if you’re reading between the lines this isn’t a brush-off of the significance of her entering the church). And, in one of the most memorable moments of my moviegoing life, a much older couple–perhaps in their 70s or 80s or older–emerges from the church, walking in an arm-in-arm gesture of love. There’s an inescapable sense that they’ve probably been faithful to one another for years. As such, their marriage rings true. It’s an authentic image.

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In the film’s final scene, after Binoche leads James up to the room that she says was the one in which they spent their first night together, she makes a simple plea: “Stay–it’s better for both of us.” The invitation recalls her earlier reprimand of James for not being “in it.” She’s asking him to give himself to her–to be present in a way that can’t be reduced to mere proximity. It’s a call to do away with the possibility of being strangers to one another. As such, my suggestion above about the church in the end of the film is not one in which I wish to present a modernist proof of its being true, because that wouldn’t be in step with the film, nor with what I’ve been outlining to this point. Rather, I want it, too, to be a kind of personal invitation–a truth that we must put on for ourselves if we are to gain a sense of its truthfulness or falsity. That is, questions of religious devotion are, like any other quest for authenticity, questions of personal identity–of who we are and who we are becoming. It’s a space one can’t understand as sufficiently until it’s inhabited for one’s self. In our over-zealous quest to self-determine everything prior to committing to anything, we have precluded infinite possibilities.

In this vein, I want to take less of an analytic stance toward these issues, and be “present” to what’s at stake in the sense of allowing this piece to conclude on an autobiographical note concerning my wife and me.

After a bumpy time of dating that featured one or two breakups–one the impact of which still reverberates in some subtle ways–our engagement period was a time that largely centered on the question of fidelity. That we both are committed Christians didn’t mean that this question was assumed, so much as it presented us with a serious sense of discerning the shape of our commitment to one another, and how it could be sustained. Who were we becoming as individuals? And how did this fit within who we would become as a married couple? Perhaps most importantly, we had to wonder if there are guiding standards that give shape to authenticity without collapsing our uniqueness and possibilities for development as individual persons. Or, how could we be a true couple–become one together–in a way that is also true to who we are as individuals? Were we ready to be shaped by our identity as two-becoming-one?

The resources we found for these questions originated with the God to whom we had already entered into a covenant relationship with–a God who we had trusted is himself love, and who, as such, promises to never leave nor forsake us. And, importantly, this God’s perfect love takes a gracious shape in loving imperfect people who violate that love. It’s against this backdrop–on this foundation–that we’ve built, and are building, our marriage. In this love which gives shape to our very creaturely existence, we’ve found sustaining resources to not merely “get by,” but to grow into more loving spouses. We extend grace to one another because we’ve received it abundantly, we extend forgiveness to one another, because we’ve been forgiven, and we keep our promise to one another based on God’s promises to us. We find great joy in our promise to one another in that we have, in our limited way, solidified a future together that stabilizes the outworking of our present commitments to one another and others, and gives us some sense of stability in the face of an otherwise uncertain future. While it can be tempting for us to take advantage of this promise in the daily life of our relationship–and we sometimes do to our harm–it’s more often a freedom-inducing hope that allows us to love without fear of consequence.

This may sound naive in the sense that I have not had to go through the lived experience of hardships and trials. But our covenant with God and with one another is one in which we anticipate that various hardships will come. Our faith is perhaps most essentially qualified by the future hope that the promises create; it’s a future hope that shapes us now, one that nourishes us in our falls and anxieties. Further, though marriage is a significant image–copy, you might say–of the covenant between God and his people, the hope embodied in Christ, love incarnate, is one that gives shape to the church visible and invisible. Our marriage could not sustain itself without the love, grace, and forgiveness that take shape in community lived out with other people, especially the church.

This is but a framework, albeit one that has been vitally important for us. But it’s a framework that shapes our daily lives–one that makes sense of the quotidian gestures that define  us as individuals and as a married couple. It’s what beckons us to offer a reassuring touch or glance, it’s what beckons us to seek forgiveness or to forgive quickly, and it’s what beckons us to be committed to one another, not in an abstract sense, but in the daily decisions we make to assure our love for one another. What we’ve found in our far-from-perfect marriage, admittedly only a few years in, is that the worst of our days as a couple are, to this point, behind us in our rocky dating stage, and that each year, as we grow in love and know one another better by being present with one another, the love that we participate in is a reality that cultivates us and our emotions in truly life-giving ways (note: this isn’t to say that some darker time for our relationship couldn’t lie ahead). That is, in our commitments to the Trinitarian God, we have found His love for us to ring true–both positively and negatively, or, both when we are in step with that love or in the reflective aftermath of having been out of step.

In short, when we give of ourselves in love to God, to one another, and to others, we feel the most free–the most at home–and find the greatest potentiality for being who we are. We find an Original to image in a way that doesn’t feel the least bit restricting–in fact, quite the opposite. There are ethics involved in authenticity because, we believe, love is constitutive of what it means to be human. In the Trinitiarian God, who is love, we live and move and have our being.

In the middle of the film, James and Binoche are debating the interpretation of a statue and happen to run into an elderly married couple. There’s a particular moment when Binoche walks ahead with the older wife, while James is standing with the older husband. What the older man says to James is profound. He comments that James is a “knowledgeable man,” but in need of some fatherly advice: “All [Binoche] wants from you is that you walk by her side and lay your hand on her shoulder. That’s all she’s longing for. But for her it’s vital. All your problems can be solved by a simple gesture. . . .

. . . Do it and set yourself free.”

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