Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Opera Singer on the Silver Screen: Certified Copy

I could say that I was motivated to see Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy by a sense of guilt about only knowing the Iranian director's work second-hand, or by curiosity to see what sort of role had been made for William Shimell, and what the baritone would make of it.  But, although both of these things would be partially true, they leave out the overwhelming, deciding factor that got me to the cinema, and that is that I have a massive celebrity crush on Juliette Binoche.  In all the films I've seen her in, she has left me with an impression of inimitable elegance, and a sense of the emotional truth of the journey undergone by whatever character she portrays.  Reviewers seem to drift towards describing the film as a bittersweet, thoughtful romantic comedy (using at least three of those four words; rearrangement optional.)  I think it would be more accurate to call it a discussion of philosophy, aesthetics, communication theory, and socialized gender roles.  For this, I believe, it certainly is, although it also remains determinedly enigmatic and ambivalent.  Binoche and Shimell, with other characters drifting in and out of their narrative, discuss and debate life and art, while wandering through Tuscany.  What's not to like? 

Somewhere in an interview I can no longer find, William Shimell described his surprise at being approached by Kiarostami for a film, saying something along the lines of "I'm not an actor; I'm an opera singer!"  (This is both overly self-deprecatory, and, I think, a false dichotomy, although it might say something about the dramatic training of opera singers.)  Kiarostami, for his part,  reiterated his modus operandi of looking for interesting faces and malleable material.  As revealed in the natural light and frequent closeups of the film, Shimell does indeed have an interesting face: elegant, not-quite-haggard.  His character, an English essayist, starts off suave and faintly sardonic, with a strong suggestion of buried unease.  This unease becomes increasingly evident, to the point of being explosive, but is never really explained. Binoche, meanwhile, seethes with doubt and anger and--need I say it?--passionate sensuality.  

The premise that two strangers should invent an elaborate scenario in order to explore personal and philosophical truth (are they complete strangers? how much of the scenario is invention?) seems improbable, but I don't think that's the point.  I bristled more than once at apparent assumptions about the nature of male-female communication, but the lines between the assumptions of the film and the assumptions of its characters, are--like so many other elements in it--imperfectly clear.  Bristling notwithstanding, I did enjoy the questions the film engaged with: questions of art and subjectivity, individual history and the art of building relationships, and not least the power of language to clarify and obscure.  I found the film almost too resolutely irresolute, but an interesting experiment.  I thought Shimell's performance stylish and aptly understated (memo to the world: opera singers can act!) And Juliette Binoche is gorgeous and incredible and I love her.


  1. I wondered about this film, maybe I should go see it. Is it in any way similar to Before the Sunset and Before the Sunrise?

  2. DTO, I must confess to my shame that I haven't seen those films, despite friendly injunctions to do so! A review I found described the film as sitting uneasily somewhere between those and Le Mépris. (This leaves me no wiser than before, but maybe it helps you?) I think the film is worth seeing, but not a must-see, unless for the radiance of Binoche.

  3. I think you would love the two Befores.


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