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Canon Entry - Certified Copy (2010)

Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.

A cast-iron rule in filmmaking is to match the eyelines of characters. When a character is looking at something offscreen, the next shot should match perfectly with that character’s line of sight. It’s such a basic technique that we rarely notice it, although filmmakers work hard to pull off this illusion. And it is an illusion. Even if the object that the character is looking at is actually on the set, we are basically getting a simulation of that character’s point of view.

In Certified Copy, Juliette Binoche’s character (never named in the film) and James (William Shimell) are in a coffee shop and are talking to each other face to face. Or so it seems. When the camera is focusing on Binoche, she is in the middle of the frame looking directly at the viewer. She is meant to be looking directly at James. If Binoche had been kneeling on the floor on a tatami mat, the shot could have been straight out of an Ozu film. When the camera focuses on James, we would expect the same shot, but instead, we see that James is actually looking slightly to his left. The eyeline has been slightly disrespected. It could have been a technical mistake, but a filmmaker who composes his scenes so expertly would not have done this mismatch mistakenly. The more I think about this scene, the more I think it is crucial to this film, unassuming as it is. But I will get to this scene later.

Juliette Binoche plays an antiques dealer who attends James Miller’s book signing. His book, Certified Copy, is an essay on the value of imitation, that a copy of the original can have just as much or even more artistic value than the original. Binoche’s character is forced to leave the signing early when she has to attend to her teenage son’s needs, but she manages to leave her phone number with James. The two meet the next day and spend the whole day together - driving, walking around, getting into random conversations with strangers, etc.

It is clear almost from the first moment that the two talk to each other that there is more to this relationship than meets the eye. Why exactly would James agree to meet a woman he apparently only saw briefly at his book signing yesterday? Why would he agree to go on a road trip and spend the whole day with her? Why does Binoche feel comfortable enough to talk about how much trouble her son is giving her, and why does James seem to come to the son’s defense when his mother is criticizing him?

Their conversations and interactions always comes back to the idea that James wrote about for his book. In fact, the reason for their little road trip is to see a painting that is famous for its artistry even though it is a fake. This idea of accomplished fakery eventually starts to extend far beyond art, applying to people and even the way that they live their lives. The first time I saw this film, I wanted desperately to know what the nature of the relationship was between the two. Kiarostami does such an excellent job maintaining this ambiguity that I could see different people having definitive, alternate explanations.

The second time I saw this film, I realized I couldn't care less. While Kiarostami is clearly interested in this theme, I think he is far more interested in the drama that is going on underneath the conversation. Kiarostami “pitched” this film to Binoche by giving a synopsis of the film to her but under the guise of some passing anecdote. He was interested in looking at Binoche’s facial expressions while he told the story. You can learn so much about the two characters when you focus less on what they’re saying and more on how they’re saying it. The way that James and Binoche test each other, pushing their limits. She does it by inviting James more and more into her private life, while James likes to jab at her seeming complacency about her aesthetic ideals and her emotional hang-ups.

Kiarostami’s greatest achievement in this film is the choice of his actors. Juliette Binoche is always a warm presence. Even when she says something distasteful or acts in a neurotic manner, we accept it. She can play a frazzled housewife as easily as she can play a muse, and in this film she does both. William Shimell was a bigger risk. He was (and is) an English opera singer who had never acted in a film before, but Kiarostami was impressed enough with his presence that he took a chance on him. And he was so right. Shimell is handsome and charismatic with a great voice and a physical presence that seems made for the screen. Also, when he acts petulantly, the contrast between his behavior and his appearance is all the more shocking.

What I see and respond to in Certified Copy is an astute observation of the relationship between men and women. All relationships involve projecting a desired image to the other person and much of the conflict comes from when the image is questioned or even just shattered. Most people have no idea how to negotiate such muddled and treacherous territory, and men and women do so in different ways. When we see the two protagonists, lovers, husband and wife, pretenders, whatever trying to talk to each other, that is precisely what we see. They are talking to each other or more precisely, at each other. They are giving their best simulation of meaningful communication, but their slightly differing eyelines suggest that they are just missing the mark. What makes these two special is that they realize this fundamental misunderstanding and they seek to correct it although they don’t really know how.

Kiarostami playfully but seriously does the same with us, making us realize the silliness to reduce this film to a simple relationship drama or procedural. He dares us to unravel the puzzle of this film, only to realize that such unraveling is both meaningless yet meaningful - that the delight is not in knowing what a smart boy or girl but in existing in the same ambiguity in which this film does.

 

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