If you want a basic lesson in the distinction between European art cinema and the films of Hollywood, Abbas Kiarostami’s Copie Conforme (Certified Copy) is a good start.
Lesson #1 – In Hollywood (and most cinema), a film is a story; it has a narrative that follows a conventional arc to satisfy conventional expectations. Here, film is philosophy. The conundrum up for debate here: is a copy as valuable as an original? If not, why? Of course, this question of representation plays a significant role throughout philosophy, from Plato’s cave to Deleuze and Foucault. It has also played an essential role for film because, as a photographic medium, film “copies” or records the real world. So, what is the responsibility of the medium to accurately portray that world? Can a film, a “copy”, be immoral? Can it be ethical? Does it matter?
Copie Confome begins with Elle (Juliette Binoche) attending a lecture by art theorist James (William Shimell) about the value of authenticity in art. His argument is that a copy carries just as much value and weight as the original. Elle has to leave early, but gets her number to James and the two meet up after the talk at her antiques store. From there, they drive into the Italian countryside, discussing his theories, and arrive in a town where Italian couples go to get married. At this point, this is a rather conventional art-house film. It focuses on conversation and ideas, not plot and events. The framing is simple, the soundtrack non-existent. At about the 50 minute mark, things change. As James takes a phone call outside a coffee shop, Elle and an older woman who works there discuss the nature of marriage. The woman assumes that Elle and James are married and Elle plays along. We learn of her unhappiness in her real marriage, and when James returns, they do seem to be married. The rest of the film sees them tour the village while having a mixture of serious and light conversations about their 15 years together. She is unhappy because he has been absent, while he believes relationships change and so should expectations.
Lesson #2 – “Art” films (this feels like a dirty term) prefer questions, not answers. Of course, we don’t get an answer to the driving question: are they married or are they pretending? Either the first half of the film was an elaborate play-act by the couple to rekindle their waning relationship or the second half is simply two strangers pretending to be married. Both sides can find support, and ultimately, answers are only valuable to the extent that they open up new questions; they don’t hold any value in and of themselves.
Lesson #3 – Composition matters. Just as great writers think about and contemplate each word, great directors focus on every element that enters the frame. While this film doesn’t provide laugh out loud moments or riveting action, there is so much pleasure in seeing how carefully everything is presented. Kiarostami plays liberally with mirrors and depth of focus. Because the film is basically an extended conversation filmed in long takes, you have the freedom to really explore the frame. There are frequently side-stories occurring in the background that comment on or contradict what is presented in the foreground. Mirrors open up the frame and show us things we shouldn’t be able to see. Even the dialogue sequences are handled uniquely. Both Binoche and Shimell are filmed head-on instead of the traditional over-the-shoulder two-shot. As a result, the characters are looking at and speaking to us. It is an easy way for Kiarostami to play with the conventions of this type of film (as an Iranian filmmaker, this is Kiarostami’s first “European” film, so, naturally, Copie Conforme is itself a copy).
Lesson #4 – Pay attention. A film like this requires you to actually watch it. While typical comedies or action films practically beg us to stop thinking (for me, this isn’t a bad thing, just a thing), Copie Conforme carries most of its weight in small things. For example, the fact that the film is in three languages is a playful exploration of its key philosophical question. In one scene, Binoche has to translate a tourguide’s Italian into English for Shimell. What is interesting here is that the tourguide’s speech is itself being translated into subtitles for us, and Binoche’s verbal translation for Shimell does not quite match up. Likely, if Shimell were to retranslate the English into French, it would come out quite different still. How better, or more simplistically, can Kiarostami illustrate his position? Because he plays with the concept so simply, you are left to make most of the jumps and connections. During the last scene, I started to question whether I was even watching the same actor as the one that started the film. Surely it wasn’t a new person, but his hair was different. Or was it?
Lesson #5 – Juliette Binoche is awesome. I’ve loved her in everything I’ve seen her do. In America, she is probably most famous for her roles in The English Patient, Chocolat, or more recently Dan in Real Life (with Steve Carrell), but she’s worked with many of the biggest directors in world cinema (Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Olivier Assayas, and David Cronenberg). Basically, she is a force. She is just a compelling presence that dominates the screen. In a film with basically two characters, it is essential that you have that dominating performance, and she delivers (in three languages nonetheless.)
Lesson #6 – Don’t Judge. It is easy to dismiss a fi
lm like this rather quickly. It seems boring, erudite, dry, etc. Additionally, the characters aren’t necessarily likable. Elle seems to be a poor, disconnected, overwhelmed mother and James is narcissistic and petty. What they say and do will frustrate and grate at your nerves. But, at least for me, the events and quarrels rings true; humans are by nature self-interested and when we argue, we are at our worst. Now, perhaps that is simply not what you want to see on screen. That is fine. But if you are going to watch, give yourself over to it. You may not end up in a place you like, but you also might be surprised. Let the judgment come after, not during.
Most of the films I watch probably won’t warrant this type of response, or maybe I just have too much time right now. Either way, it feels good to write seriously about film again. It has been too long.