On the Copies in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy

A number of people have asked me what I thought of Abbas Kiarostami’s new film Certified Copy, which is about an English writer, James Miller, who’s just published a book arguing that the distinction between original and copy is meaningless, and his meeting with a charming art dealer, identified only as “Elle”, who may or may not be his wife, in Tuscany during a book tour.  The movie is set up so didactically – it more or less begins with a ten minute lecture setting out the thesis of the writer’s book – that one is forced to assume that what follows – a more or less standard European art movie scene of romantic hijinx played out in a picturesque location – is also about copying.  I felt fairly indifferent to the movie while watching it, but it’s growing on me as I think about it.  I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing.

If the movie is indeed a copy of a generic European art house movie narrative, then it’s such a correct copy that it’s hard to see where the intervention, or the creativity in the act of making the copy is.  True, Duchamp’s “Fontaine” is also just another urinal, but it achieved it’s power through the shock of being relocated from the bathroom to the art  gallery.  But isn’t this kind of film and role exactly what we expect of Juliet Binoche (playing “Elle”), if not Kiarostami himself?

Perhaps something is lost in translation.   Certainly the film abounds with translation problems: the shifts from English to Italian to French; between lovers and genders; between generations; between those with traditional commitments and those who believe themselves without them.  In every case, something like a copy appears when there’s an expectation as to how things are supposed to be, an expectation which is let down.  Which incidentally describes prevalent critical reaction to the film.

Is anything gained in translation too?  An “Iranian” director making a “European” art house film?  Certainly it’d be worth looking at the way in which non European film-makers are invited to participate in art house cinema only through adopting and reiterating certain kinds of cinematic discourse. But that’s old news at this point, isn’t it? A dysfunctional couple forced to roleplay traditional gender and marital parts in order to revive their relationship? Ditto.  Perhaps translation is the wrong word for what’s happening.

Most reviewers of the film feel compelled to make a decision about who the two main characters in the film are, while the film itself goes to great lengths to resist this.  In fact, the weakness of the film, if it is one, consists in the apparently artificial lengths that Kiarostami is compelled to go to in order to maintain the ambiguity about whether or not Elle and Miller are a long time married couple now meeting up again and acting as if they don’t know each other, or a couple meeting for the first time who find themselves playing the roles of people in a long term relationship.  In other words, a drama of original and copy.

Is the point then that the same claim that Miller makes in his book turns out to be true in real life, that the distinction between original and copy is not so important and that sometimes the copy may be more relevant or powerful than the original?  Just in terms of the narrative arc of the movie this doesn’t sound entirely right.  The movie ends with Elle remembering a moment of happiness and satisfaction on her wedding night, while Miller looks at himself in the bathroom mirror and has a moment presumably of self recognition, marked by the somewhat crude device of the church bells outside ringing.  Is the point then conversely that behind the superficial play of original and copy there is the mark of an original trauma which somehow is revealed by the tracking and repeating of symptoms, which are in a sense copies that disavow the original that is in fact their source.  That would explain the unpleasantly uptight and reactive character of Miller, and equally clueless sentimentality of Elle.

But that also sounds too crude.  After all, there’s no clear explanation or resolution given at the end of the movie.  Even the mirror that one assumes Miller is looking into is not actually seen on screen.  It’s a camera that the actor faces onto, imitating the expression he might have in front of a mirror.  A camera is not exactly a mirror.  So the movie floats in a strange way towards recent films such as Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, or Lars von Trier’s Dogville, where the scaffolding of the film set is itself visible and constitutive of what goes on in the film.  Kiarostami goes a step further than Kaufman or von Trier by exposing the “Real” of the Tuscan town in the movie as a kind of mimetic installation as much as the warehouses and stages of those other films.  The point is driven home by the presentation of the Tuscan towns as tourist destinations, frozen in some image of their own past and cultural heritage, yet still full of people finally just trying to live their lives.

What is disturbing or confusing or even disappointing in the film is the lack of clear directions as to what we are to do with this mimetic impasse.  Is it an invitation to the unleashing of drives as in von Trier’s movies? Or to the multiple personalities or aphasiacs that populate Kaufman’s films?  Perhaps there’s a simpler response: that one of the core principles animating mimetic phenomena is erotic.  Put crudely, the film tracks an amorous encounter through various stages of deflection and displacement to the very moment where the two lovers are finally in a hotel room, about to make love.  Or not.  In other words, copying in the movie is mostly an expression of erotic ambivalence.  The young couples who are getting married in the church are disavowed by Miller because of their supposed naivete about what the future actually holds in store for them, but what’s provocative mimetically of course is that the religious and state rituals around marriage structure the obscenity of sexual reproduction.  The couples are not so much naïve as committed to the mimetic rites that they are going through.  Miller is incapable of this commitment.  As my colleague Ian Carr-Harris said to me in a recent discussion, he’s “afraid of originals”!  And therefore obfuscates the difference between original and copy in his work.

Am I guilty of the same kind of obfuscation?  For me, an original is a kind of copy, since there is no original without an act of labeling or designation that says “this is an original” (at the same time obscuring the processes of imitation and appropriation that make up an object).  But both originals and copies can expose one to the nonconceptual Real, and it’s this exposure to the Real that we are afraid of.  Certified Copy is a film about this fear, about the ways in which cinema can or can’t address it, and in particular about the way Kiarostami thinks it can be addressed, in 2011, in a film funded by European backers.

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