Certified Copy (2010, Abbas Kiarostami; Cinematographer: Luca Bigazzi)
There are certain times in a person’s life when a piece of art can begin to resonate. Some art is for youth, filled with youthful emotions, youthful lusts, and aggressions, Catcher in the Rye for example, and if viewed too late, the art is ineffectual, its value lessened through the simple act of personal maturity. Other art is more complex, more adult, dealing with situations like death or fidelity or regret in ways that might be lost on someone who hasn’t lived through those experiences. Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is the latter, and I’d be lying if I said I was adult enough to “get it.”
Even without taking in Certified Copy’s emotional narrative, its intellectual and thematic arcs demand scrutiny. That Kiarostami has created, essentially, a “discourse” film in the Before Sunrise or My Dinner with Andre vein, makes the movie that much more elusive, since the themes and motifs seem to present themselves simply as main text. However, Kiarostami’s juxtaposition of two conflicting narratives, the first in which a male and female (played with delicate nuance by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell) are strangers who discuss art, and the second in which the same two people are a married couple who discuss lost love and family, requires a reexamination of each stem of conversation against the entire span of film, and not just within the separate narrative in which those conversations occur. When Shimell’s James Miller tells Binoche’s Elle that she must keep her distance from art, even a copy, he’s also justifying his absence as a lover and a father in the film’s second half, even though this Miller is neither Binoche’s lover nor the father of her child.
The child, played by Adrian Moore, then becomes the crux of the movie, the embodiment of Miller’s “reproduction” concepts, and the certified copy in question. Elle’s refutation of Miller’s thesis regarding copies seems to stem from her fear that her son will reflect only the negative aspects of his parentage. Is the child doomed to repeat Miller’s inadequacies, his naivety, and ultimately reject his mother’s love, abandoning her? Is he Elle’s mirror as well? He seems to understand her frustrated desires even more than she, but his brief appearance (he’s cleverly absent during the half of Certified Copy that is actually about him) indicates he’s lost in the same self-centered daze in which his mother exists. Alternatively, what if the child shines with his father’s brilliance? What if he reflects back his mother’s endearments?
Kiarostami’s refusal to name Binoche (Elle just being French for “she”), and situating her as a thematic cypher, linking her to classic feminine paintings and sculptures, instead of a character, seems, despite best intentions, vaguely sexist. Perhaps Miller being the only character with a name is a practical decision (a name has to be on the book jacket, after all) and not a thematic one. Thematically, the naming of the man solidifies him as the protagonist, the artist, and the creator, relegating the rest of the cast, including, sadly, Elle, to be extenuations of his art, despite the fact that Elle, as mother, is as much an artist as James Miller, perhaps more so. Her creation is her son. The child is a copy, a reproduction, and he has merit not in spite of this, but because of it. That sexual reproduction is a truer art form than traditional concepts of the idea resonates throughout the film’s second half, but with Miller as the focus of its creation, not Elle. The film’s closing shot of Miller examining himself in the mirror brings the masculine viewpoint home. His son is his true art, as he was his father’s true art. After all, isn’t everyone a copy of someone?
It is precisely this extrapolation of the artistic process to include sex, and love, and parentage that keeps me from “getting” Certified Copy on an emotional level. I consider myself an artist, and I have loved, but I haven’t lived love, at least not the way Elle and Miller have, and I don’t, or plan to, have a child. Is Kiarostami implying that emotion trumps intellect, and that biological creation supersedes its artistic counterpart? Do I, as an artist, know nothing about art, beautiful, true art? Or, are the two things merely mirrors of the same complex process, which each person must embrace in her own way? The urge to create is in us all, and one way or another we will persevere, and leave a legacy of beauty, copy after copy.