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For Your Consideration: 'Copie conforme'

The new film by Iranian-born director Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy (Copie conforme), begins with an intellectual conceit. An English writer, James Miller, is on a book tour in Tuscany, and his new book is about how copies of art works have their own worth, perhaps just as much as the originals themselves. Why do we place so much importance on the singularity of the original object, especially when most people cannot even tell the difference between it and a copy? Marcel Duchamp made several versions of some of his famous Dada pieces, insisting that the object was not the art but rather the idea behind it. The Ise shrine in Japan is torn down and rebuilt every twenty years, according to Shinto ritual, so that it is ever new -- and, in fact, never "the original." In a recent example, the new Statue of Liberty stamp from the United States Postal Service features an image not of Frédéric Bartholdi's actual statue but of the copy of the sculpture made for the New York-New York Casino in Las Vegas.

It is a rather heavy concept on which to hang a script, but that is what Kiarostami, who also wrote the screenplay, does. At the book reading, we see a mother, unnamed, and her son, Julien, who go off to have lunch but leave information for a meeting afterward. The language of the conversation shifts, only one of many things in the film that are not necessarily as they seem. As the mother, Juliette Binoche (who won Best Actress prize at Cannes last year) switches easily between French, English, and Italian; her son, the German-born Adrian Moore, speaks impeccable French; and British baritone William Shimell speaks English and (we learn later) French. Miller meets the woman at her antiques shop, and they set off in her car for the hill town of Lucignano and its Museo Civico, on a voyage that consists of little more than the two of them driving, walking, and talking in squares and cafés. What exactly is going on between the two of them, and how reality can shift from one thing to the next, is for the viewer to determine. Are we looking at a copy or the original?

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La Binoche only seems to get more radiant as the years pass, and here she sets the camera ablaze with beauty and fierceness. She has always been an intelligent actress, having turned down well-paid roles in Jurassic Park and Mission: Impossible (dogs, both) while having turned in superb performances in films directed by Godard, Téchiné, Philip Kaufman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Louis Malle, and Anthony Minghella. She makes this character a technicolor mix of nervous agitation and feminine wiles. Kiarostami often casts actors who are not actors, and he is vindicated by the choice of Shimell, who is suave and smug. Most beautiful of all is the Tuscan landscape, warm light, and town architecture, captured with loving detail by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi -- most brilliantly in long rolling shots reflected in the windshield of the car over the dialogue. This is a big-think kind of movie, a slow-paced and expansive Daedalic puzzle, but anyone who enjoyed ambulatory philosophy films like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, to name only a recent pair, will enjoy it.


andrew said...

I understood this film as a sort of parodic homage to 'F for Fake' and 'Scenes from a Marriage'. 'Copie conforme' is greater than either of those. I would not place too much emphasis on the characters' rather asinine speeches- these were probably intended to create the same effect that Godard strove for with his endless voice-overs, a verbal texture to complement the image.

Charles T. Downey said...

Interesting perspective. It is definitely a good film to discuss over drinks after leaving the cinema.

andrew said...

Yes, I have been thinking about this film constantly after seeing it two weeks ago. I have even started a couple of conversations with complete strangers in cafes about 'Copie conforme'. It is my new second favorite Kiarostami, right behind 'Lebassi Baraye Arossi'.