March 30, 2011

MOVIES: Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010/US 2011)

A bit more spoiler-y than usual, I think, but not about the plot -- not that plot's really the point in this one -- and it's hard to say anything much about the movie without discussing its central device to some extent.

James (opera singer William Shimell, making his film debut) is an English author whose latest book is a philosophical inquiry into the notions of originality and copy in art; the copy, he argues, is (if well made) no less valuable than the original, and there's no real reason to prefer the actual to the simulated.

He's in Tuscany, doing lectures in support of his book, and in attendance is a woman who is never named in the movie, but let's call her Juliette, since she's played by Juliette Binoche. Juliette whispers something to the host of the lecture and leaves her address; James comes to visit her at her antique shop, and the two set out for a Sunday drive through Tuscany. A waitress in a cafe mistakes them for husband and wife, and they do not correct her; even after leaving the cafe, they continue behaving as if they were married.

And here's where the movie gets odd on us. The relationship that James and Juliette create for themselves is unusually complete (and hostile); they seem to agree on surprisingly specific details without having to discuss them, and Kiarostami begins to drop hints that perhaps they really are married, and it was the meeting as strangers that was some sort of play-acting. Married or strangers? And given James' notions about the relative value of actual vs. imitation, does it really matter whether their squabbling is real or pretend?

I've very much enjoyed reading the reviews of this film since seeing it. Many of the critics are adamant that there's no ambiguity in the relationship, and that it's perfectly obvious what's really going on. Which would be swell if only they could agree; there seems to be a roughly even split between those who are convinced they're strangers playing at being married and those who know it's the other way around.

There are interesting philosophical notions at play here, and some of the conversations about those ideas are fascinating, playing somewhat as My Tuscan Road Trip With Andre. Binoche and Shimell are completely convincing from moment to moment, and they have terrific chemistry, regardless of what their relationship is supposed to be at any given instant.

The problem is that since we never do know which version of their relationship is real, we have no idea what's at stake, and no reason to care what happens to them. I enjoy a good puzzle movie, but this one is all ambiguity and no resolution, which left me floundering with nothing to grab on to. Good performances, and the movie isn't boring, but it's all style and very little substance, and rather a muddle in the end.

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