Tag Archives: Longread

Certified Copy, Notes On (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Begium 2010,)

CERTIFIED COPY

This is a movie that seems to shift the ground under and over its own foundation as it progresses. The story begins with a French antiques dealer, never named in the film but played by Juliette Binoche and significantly listed in the credits as ‘Elle’, with all the connotations of the eternal, the archetypal, the ideal ‘She’ which every other woman simply performs, conforms to or deviates from, enacts, but might just be a bad copy of; one which nonetheless, in the act of copying, becomes, and becomes no less real, and potentially even more real, than the ideal.

‘Elle’ goes to listen to a British author, James Miller (William Shimell), give a talk on the relationship between the original and the copy in art with, we eventually find out, her eleven-year-old son. The son suggests she has the hots for the writer as she buys lots of copies of a book she’s already told him she has reservations about. She leaves her number with James who then picks her up at her antique store; they head off to the countryside, visit a museum, and then stop for a coffee. At the cafe, whilst he’s in the toilet, an elderly server ‘mistakes’ them for a couple, and she and ‘Elle’ have a long discussion on relationships, marriage, children and what makes for a good husband. ‘Elle’ talks emotionally about the failures of hers whilst the old lady offers a different, more generous interpretation. Ideals can ruin one’s life, the old lady warns her. When Miller returns, and in spite of the real emotion she’s shown for the husband we thought to be him, ‘Elle’ now tells Miller how funny it is that the old lady thought they were a couple.

James, surrounded by representations of 'She', including that of his possible wife reflected in the mirror.
James, surrounded by representations of ‘She’, including that of his possible wife reflected in the mirror.

As the film progresses, as they copy, enact, and re-enact their coupledom, we begin to first suspect that they really are a married couple, then become more firm in our conviction that they are, and, finally, it’s as if this couple stand in for all couples; even though we can’t quite shake off the doubt that, in spite of all we’ve seen, they might not really be one, or at least not the one we thought they were. Each slight shift in the narrative, in our understanding of the story, is accompanied by a shimmer of emotion, one that shines more truly and deeply as the film progresses.

Out of these shifts a possible story accumulates of a fifteen year-old marriage in which the wife loves her husband but is unsatisfied because he’s never there and she’s left alone to bring up her son. He admits that things weren’t as they had been when they first got married because things change but seems surprised to see her questioning the foundations of their relationship. At first, the divisions between them seem to be due to differences of language and culture as well as of character and feeling; but, as the story unfolds, these break down as well:. While we’re told he only speaks English whereas she speaks French to her son, English to her husband, and Italian to everyone else, over the course of the film we hear him also speak in these three languages, and this at least raises a doubt as to the reliability of her perspective and thus of ours.

As the first part of the film embroiders a narrative and a set of relationships, it also offers a rich, extended and variegated exploration on the nature of art. The film begins with a shot of a table, a microphone and a book, ‘Certified Copy’. The camera lingers on that ‘empty’ shot for a while until the author is introduced. He begins a speech on the relationship between the copy and the original in art and the film thus instigates an even more complex discussion on the nature of art that will be extensively developed throughout the first part of the film.

 

Certified Copy begins with a discussion of art, on the relationship between the original and the copy; is the original necessarily better? But it proceeds from there onto other topics such as the effects of age on value: can you only tell whether something is art if its value has been acknowledged for a long time? The film also dramatises an exploration of the natural versus the constructed or created in art, the question of form, the question of context to perception and art (does Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol putting a coke bottle in a museum, or a copy of an advertisement for a coke bottle in a museum, make it art?), the relationship of art to authorship (maybe if Jasper Johns puts the coke bottle there it can change our perception of it but would it do so if it was you or I that put the bottle there?) The film also brings up question of functionality, responsibility, affect, effect. What is the relationship of art to politics and ethics?

There’s also a wonderful interlude in a museum where our two protagonists are looking at a copy that was admired as an original for many years, is now acknowledged as a copy but is thought to be better than the original. And the film also offers interesting snippets, little asides that are nonetheless rich points of departure for thought on such issues as the look on the work: subjective, personal, creative, inventive; the place of technical skill or technique in value; and the issue of the reputation of the artist.

There’s another marvelous moment, this one  in a piazza, where they get into an argument on the interpretation of a statue of a couple and they rope in another couple , more elderly and perhaps wiser, to offer their views as proof of their own interpretation. I love it that that couple is played by Agathe Natanson and the legendary Jean-Claude Carrière, the screenwriter not only of Buñuel’s late great works (Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, The Phantom of Liberty, Discrete Charm of the Bourgoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire) but also of The Tin Drum, The Return of Martin Guèrre, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and clearly someone who has a thought or two on art worth listening to. Our listening, however, is qualified by the film bringing to our attention that our perception is not always reliable: when we first see this couple he seems to be angrily berating his wife and as if about to hit her; whereas, as they move on, we see that he’s been merely talking to someone on his phone. Things are not always as they seem. There’s a gaze that frames our perception. That gaze can shift.

Carrière’s presence is a reminder that the film is offering not only a discussion on art, on relationships, on the real and on their inter-relationship but that it’s doing so through a dialogue with film history in general (all those long takes beloved of Bazin, that staging in depth Bazin so praised in Welles and Wyler, the use of mirrors to frame, focus and re-compose so beloved of Sirk) but with Rossellini’s Journey to Italy in particular. The dramatization of a relationship in crisis through a journey within Italy is a theme they both share; the scene of Bergman in the museum being told about the cultural legacy of ancient times and trying to put it into her own context (see clip above) is extrapolated as a dominant theme in Certified Copy. There are more concrete echoes such as the reflections of the streets onto the windshield of the vehicle each couple is driving when they discourse on their own internal concerns whilst a whole world is visible in the background behind the rear window of the car (see frame grabs below).

Reflections on the windshield, a world outside the car, in Rossellini's Journey to Italy.
Reflections on the windshield, a world outside the car, in Rossellini’s Journey to Italy.
Talking about art and life in  Certified Copy
Talking about art and life in Certified Copy

The scene in Journey to Italy with the discovery of the lovers extinguished in a final embrace is a turning point in that film not unlike the couple in Certified Copy discussing the statue of that other couple in the piazza. Kiarostami’s film doesn’t place as much direct emphasis on faith, and certainly ‘She’/Binoche doesn’t get swept up by the faithful the way Bergman does in Rossellini’s film, and James/Shimell doesn’t seem to be one to rescue her if she were. But he might, just as his might be the shoulder ‘She’ needs to rest her head on. However, Kiarostami does offer a different kind of faith: that in the enactment, in the everyday copying of the ideal, one comes closer to fulfilling it; the daily enactment of duty, of performing what one promised to do, of conforming to a code, does not necessarily result in mere copy, it’s a copie conforme, a ‘Certified Copy’ so good that it might be mistaken for the real thing, certainly stand in for, and fulfil  the same function as the real thing. And who’s to say that it’s not?

The richness of theme, and the complexity with which the film dramatises and explores it, is one of the film’s great pleasures. Another, just as deserving of praise, and perhaps even more pleasurable, is Juliette Binoche’s performance of ‘She’: all the emotions of that ‘femme eternelle’ who is particularized as a frazzled working mom, emotions that sometimes seem in contradiction with each other, are visible in her face: she’s harried, seductive, worried, pleading, beautiful, middle-aged, all at once. It’s an extraordinary performance. He is the uninspiring unemotional blank; you can hear what he says but you don’t know what he thinks. It’s obviously in character and might be the very reason for Shimmell’s casting but it does detract from the movie, though not to the point were it prevents it from achieving greatness.

Surrounded by pleading and waiting wives.
Surrounded by pleading and waiting wives.
Surrounded by marriages James wants no part of.
Surrounded by marriages James wants no part of.
Some marriages start in tears as James reluctantly joins the marriage party in the background.
Some marriages start in tears as James reluctantly joins the marriage party in the background.

The other, and as regards this account, last of the film’s great pleasures, one which took me a while to awaken to, is the mise-en-scene. It initially seems so simple that one doesn’t notice anything, than gradually one sees ‘She’ reflected in mirrors alongside statues of naked women in Roman Art (see frame grab above) or James surrounded by brides he doesn’t want to talk to or be made to remember but once again in mirrors, in the background, as barely discernible reflections (see more frame grabs above), like a faint echo of a memory slowly rising to consciousness but, repressed by the protagonist, evoked by the staging, lighting and camerawork.

It’s a film that gets richer with each viewing.

José Arroyo

 

Días de Gracia/Days of Grace or a Note on the Process of Writing on Film (Everardo Gout, Mexico, 2011)

Days-of-Grace-poster2

I find the process of writing in itself an interesting guide as to how I value a film. In the last year, I’ve loved Mud, Candelabra, and The Bling Ring so much that I’ve seen them half a dozen times each but still haven’t managed to write anything on them but notes to myself: I’m paralysed with appreciation; I tell myself I need to wait for the DVD release to look at films more closely, verify my opinions, discover more of their mysteries, and find the language with which to begin to account for them. And so the process gets deferred.

Other times my need to write on a film over-rides almost everything else. In the last few days I’ve been going to lots of cultural events; Alain Bennet’s People at the Birmingham Rep, Shakespeare at Stratford, David Byrne in concert, other movies; and in spite of finding them all rewarding in their own ways, I found my mind returning, almost against my will, to focus on Satyajit Ray’s The Big City. I needed to write something.

Other films feel like a waste of time to see, encourage no reflection, and writing on them doesn’t even cross my mind. Others yet, like Days of Grace, I initially thought of just putting aside as a not-too-pleasant experience but then found myself returning to at odd moments as if my unconscious was telling me something my conscious reason didn’t quite grasp.

My first impression of Days of Grace was of an interesting, almost virtuoso, if rather bewildering and somewhat unpleasant example of types of camera movement, colour and editing now made possible by new technologies. Different parts of the film are shot in different formats: 8, 16 and 35 mm; and colour is used differently in different parts of the movie; but the oversaturation it does make use of throughout a great deal of the film has only been seen in cinema relatively recently and is probably due to computerized colour grading. The movement of the camera is relentless and dizzying; simultaneously exciting and irritating; it whizzes overhead in speedy helicopter shots over Mexico City, shakes wildly as it follows characters so you almost can’t see what’s going on. The editing must have been done digitally as objects appear and disappear from walls even as the camera pans across it and would have been a very expensive special effect in another era. And I thought there was something interesting and new about a steady but clearly mechanical (non-smooth) type of tracking shot that I don’t remember seeing before.

After I decided not to write on it (why write something negative on something struggling to find an audience as is?) my mind kept returning to the phrase of Gabriel García Marquez that acts as a pre-amble to the film: ‘La vida no es lo que uno vivío, sino lo que recuerda, y cómo lo recuerda para contarla/ Life is not what one lived but what one remembers and how one remembers to tell it’.  So what is life according to Days of Grace, what does the film want us to remember, and how does it tell its story?

These questions were part of the problem I had with the Day of Grace because I wasn’t sure I followed it properly; and I was not alone. Phillip French writing in The Observer notes that the story ‘is difficult, at times almost impossible, to follow. At least first time around.’

The film is clearly a ‘state of the nation film’ with some similarities to Amores Perros and City of God. It is set during three World Cups, 2002, 2006 and 2010 because it’s been observed that, ‘every four years, for 30 days, crime rates go down by 30% because of the World Cup’. It tells three interconnected stories, that of a cop, a kidnap victim, and a family; there are even three versions of ‘Summertime’ so that the film becomes interconnected even on an aural level (Janis Joplin and Nina Simone I recognized: I had to search the credits to find the last which turns out to be by Scarlett Johansson). Each of these stories involves the other key phrase repeated throughout the film, something like ‘in Mexico, every single day is a fight for your life’. So what the film remembers and what it tells is this struggle; and it is significant that the only person who leaves the film’s carnage alive is a young boy who we see first as a child delinquent (Doroteo), then as an apprentice kidnapper (called Iguana and played by Kristyan Ferrer) and in the last scene of the film as a boxer, still fighting for his life, not yet knocked off like the others in the film. But for how long?

Everardo Gout, whose debut feature this is, has called Days of Grace, ‘A love letter to my country…the film comes out of my great love for the country, out of sadness and out of fear at the violence.’ In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw read this ‘love letter’ as a ‘confident well made film that ends up in a blind alley of cynicism’. I do understand where both are coming from. Part of the reason my mind kept returning to the film was because it jived with my experience of Mexico when I last visited: those who could afford to lived in gated communities with their own security firms; the city police, the District police and the national police fought with each other and also against the various gangs that were often more powerful than they; kidnapping was so rife they had a term for it ‘kindnap expres’, a short-cut to ready money to which everyone who had even a minimal paycheck and a family was vulnerable to. Mexico felt like a failed State and indeed the first time I venture unescorted, it was the police I fell victim to rather than a gangster: the police were the gangsters. The film too makes it clear that there is a thin divide between cops and gangsters in Mexico. As one of the characters says in an analogy with the World Cup, ‘we’re not arbiters, we’re players’.

What to Bradshaw is cynicism, a lack of faith and hope in people and institutions, is to Gout realism, sad and fearful but of what is not of what it once was or what the society could be again. It’s a love letter because there’s Lupe, the hero who is not only a cop, but one who is linked to Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary saint and arguably a founding father of Twentieth Century Mexican ideals. In the face of Tenoch Huerta, and in his performance, in the gesture of kissing of the figure of Zapata and the bullet he once held, one sees a Utopian ideal of that daily fight not only to survive but to make things better, to make things good; and in that ideal lies Gout’s love letter.

What my mind kept turning to, what made me want to find out a little more about the film and to write something after my initial decision not to were three things a) that I couldn’t understand the story fully: was the film too fast or was I too slow? I haven’t figured out the answer to that one yet. B) The violence: brutal, relentless, stylish. This is bound to become a cult film. And c) Tenoch Huerta’s open and suffering face in his futile attempt to make things better. I also felt that the film was akin to the work of a brilliant writer who was so enraptured by his limitless ability with the medium that he ended up writing astonishing passages but forgot what he was writing about or whom he was writing to; or put another way, Days of Grace is the work of a virtuoso director. That is where my writing on the film led me to think contra my experience of watching it.

José Arroyo