Saturday 25 September 2010

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France / Italy / Iran, 2010)

A man and a woman sojourn in an Italian town. Some years into their marriage, events somehow crack open years of silence… So, boredom, estrangement, conflict, disintegration… This is Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1954).

Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy can be seen, at least in part, as a simulacrum of Rosselini’s original film. This, of course, is just how Kiarostami wants it. Exploring the very idea of the original and the copy is Kiarostami's surface project. And, if the second half of the film ‘copies’ Rossellini’s, the first half is a series of meditations that open up what will come. It is here the notion of the original and the copy are explored in a number of ways… the writer’s lecture, conversations in the car, the revered painting revealed as fake. Isn’t a copy an original in a sense? Is a copy any less authentic than its original? Is there any such thing as an original? Such are the questions explored. It is in this way we enter in to the second part of the film and the failing marriage.

The film begins in a provincial Tuscany lecture hall. James Miller, a moderately famous English art historian, gives a lecture organised by the Italian translator of his book. In the audience is Elle. She attends with her son, but has to leave due to his disruptive behaviour. Before walking out, however, she gives her number to the translator and asks him to get the author to contact her. They go on a kind of a date. At first the talk is of his book, she gets him to sign some copies for friends. Later, when they go for a coffee, la patronne du café mistakes them for man and wife. James is out taking a call, and Elle, mischievously, plays along with la patronne. When James returns, Elle tells him what she has done…

From this point on they are husband and wife, fifteen years into a marriage. Their trip is recompense for the previous night. It was an anniversary; he fell asleep while she was making herself look good for him. Events somehow crack open years of silence… boredom, estrangement, conflict, disintegration…

So, the second part of the film is a playing out of the concepts explored in the first part of the film. And this is done through a reification of, or reflection upon, Rossellini’s film. Yet such a reading remains superficial. There is something far more essential at stake here. For instance – and a clue to what is essential – it would be entirely wrong to think of the second part of the film as an act, as James and Elle caught up in some kind of fantasy, some kind of game. Rather, Kiarostami performs a wonderful sleight of hand… he ensures that both the first part and the second part of the film have their own essential ‘truth’ in-and-of themselves. Or, to put this another way, from the position of the first part, the second part is ‘fake’; from the position of the second part, the first part is ‘fake’. Which is as much to say that each of the two aspects are indeterminate in relation to the other…

And there is a third aspect to the film, a third ‘truth’. Taken as a whole, the film compresses fifteen years of a relationship – from first date to fifteenth anniversary – into a day. ‘It is actually based,’ says Kiarostami, ‘on something that happened to me ten, 15, maybe even 20 years ago – I’ve no real sense of time. And I wonder whether the woman in question, if she sees the film, will recognise herself. Is it just a memory I myself kept from what happened? After all, we spent just one day together’ (The List, 'Profile: Abbas Kiarostami'). As we will see, it is this ‘sense of time,’ or maybe the ‘no real sense of time’ that is essential to Kiarostami’s film. However, first, we must ask what can account for this structure, for the three indeterminate aspects?

Gilles Deleuze, in his taxonomy of cinema, describes a type of film created from a particular chronosign he calls peaks of the present. As Deleuze puts it, chronosigns concern ‘narration,’ a narration of ‘false continuity’ which ‘extend crystalline description,’ the interactions between actual on-screen images and their virtual (brain-screen) components (C2:127). These false continuities take a number of forms, but the least common (at least as far as I have witnessed) are peaks of the present. ‘Points [or peaks] of the present’ explore the way in which any present moment is fundamentally divided between the present-in-itself, the present’s past and the present’s future (C2:100).

As Deleuze puts it, with peaks of the present ‘narration will consist of the distribution of different presents… so that each forms a combination that is plausible and possible in itself, but where all of them together are “incompossible”’ (C2:101). Not impossible, but each possibility is possible. This kind of film disrupts the order of time, ‘gives narration a new value, because it abstracts it from all successive action’ (C2:101). Rather, the narrative appears in the repetitions of the different presents. In this sense we can see the three aspects of Certified Copy as incompossible, each aspect a copy, or version of a situation. And each version the original. James and Elle’s first date to fifteenth anniversary is, in-itself, the present of the present. The first half of the film (the date) the past of the present; and the second half of the film (the disintegrating marriage) the future of the present.

Now we can apprehend what is essential in the film. It is not simply a meditation on the copy and the original, but what the copy and the original do to time. The copy puts time out of joint. The original and the copy would seem to have a temporal ordering. But admitting the copy is of equal value as the original, that there is no such thing as an original, that the copy is original in its own way, disrupts temporality, opens up onto what Henri Bergson calls duration. It gives a different reading to time. Time is no longer succession but simultaneity. In this sense the peaks of the present of Certified Copy are ‘setting time free’ (C2:102). And freedom is choice, the choice between ‘inextricable differences’ (C2:105). The last shot of the film: James takes a piss while Elle is in on the bed of the hotel room. Kiarostami allows James to leave and leaves an empty frame. What will they do? Which aspect of duration, which peak of the present will they choose?

Will we treat each day, each moment, as a recurrence of the day, the moment, before? Or as duration… as something in-and-of-itself, as the beginning of something new, as the end of something? These three incompossible aspects of duration make time ‘frightening and inexplicable’ (C2:101). For, on the one hand, the possibility of action is torn between living in the moment, reacting to the influences of the past and acting for the future. Yet, on the other hand, somehow these different repetitions of time overlay each other. And because of this we can discover there is always a choice, there is always choice… and choice is freedom…

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