“The secret power of novels: they look like mirrors held up to the world, but what they are is machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world and so muddy the waters of genuine understanding of the human condition”
So says Gabriel Josipovici on page 70 of his book Whatever Happened to Modernism? (2010). Josipovici tries to isolate the spirit of Modernism not in any formal development or stylistic quirk, but in a particular philosophical stance with regards not only to the world but also to the act of producing art. This stance finds its origins in what Weber and Schiller called the Disenchantment of the World, an event — associated either with the Renaissance or the French Revolution — that saw the dismantling of the certainties of the old medieval conceptual order and their replacement with a more sceptical, tentative and detached worldview born of the scientific revolution and a humanist tradition stretching back to antiquity. The word became disenchanted not because old comforting falsehoods were replaced by harsh new truths but because it suddenly became clear that the world was a place free of certainties and that absolutely everything was open to questioning. This sense of disenchantment provoked what the philosopher Kierkegaard called ‘the dizziness of freedom’, a feeling that everything could be said but because there were no longer any fixed rules or structures to press against that nothing that could be said would have any meaning. The essence of Modernism, according to Josipovici, is art that embraces this lack of certainty and manages to press forward because of it.
Abbas Kiarostami’s previous film Shirin (2008) seemed to embody this artistic self-awareness perfectly. Set in an Iranian cinema, the film is composed of nothing but a series of close-ups on the faces of Iranian women as they watch a film based upon a work of epic Persian romantic poetry. We never see the film itself, but in reading about the making of Shirin we learn anecdotes about the poem, the production process and the somewhat jarring presence of the actress Juliette Binoche amongst a sea of unrecognisable faces. Shirin is a film that invites us to think not about the images upon the screen but upon the selection of those images and the relationship between those images and the (unseen) story that is producing them. In short, Shirin is very much a work of Modernist cinema as Josipovici would understand the term… it is a film about the author’s lack of authority and the lack of authenticity inherent in any artistic text regardless of how ‘realistic’ the images on screen purport to be.
While Shirin is undeniably a beautiful and powerful film, it is also a film that smacks of cleverness more than authenticity. There is do doubting the reality of the women’s responses to the unseen film but the framing of these images is so philosophically complex and ontologically ‘clever’ that Shirin seems less like a work of art and more like a critical essay on the impossibility of creating authentic art. To borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes, it lacks the trembling of existence. It lacks that smack of the real. It does not feel like an authentic slice of reality, let alone a reliable reproduction of the world. Copie Conforme, Kiarostami’s follow-up film, can be seen as an attempt to correct the mistakes made by Shirin. It is a film that engages and struggles with the unsurmountable difficulty of achieving artistic authenticity, but it does so from within the context of a story that feels both horribly and beautifully real.
Certified Copy opens with the a shot of a stage. A portly man waddles into view and explains to us that the author James Miller (William Shimell) — who we are here to see give a talk — has been delayed. After a few minutes of time filling, Miller arrives and thanks both his audience and the translator of his book. At this point, a woman (Juliette Binoche) walks in. She has with her a teenaged boy who is playing a game-boy. He does not want to be there and starts to fidget. His mother too begins to fidget and before long she is passing her number to the portly man and rushing out. We do not hear what Miller has to say about his book. The woman and her son then walk through the streets of Florence. He walks several steps behind her. They sit in a restaurant and the boy begins to pick apart the conceits of the woman’s life: Why was she so insistent on meeting the author if she didn’t like his book? Why did she buy six copies of the book if she and her friends already owned it? Why did she leave after she passed on her telephone number to the author? The grilling is astonishingly patronising and aggressive. The boy pushes at the polite fictions of his mother’s life and suggests that she is nothing but a pseud who is pretending to be interested in a book in the hope of hooking up with the suave English author.
This astonishing opening sequence sets the tone for the film’s first act. We move from the restaurant to the woman’s shop where the author turns up after receiving an invitation. The pair get into the woman’s car and decide to drive to a nearby village. From the get-go, the woman gives off an intensely disturbing vibe: Her reactions to the author’s responses to her questions are aggressive, wounded, emotionally pregnant. If her attitude towards this man she has just met seems bizarre then the author’s willingness to put up with it seems even stranger: He does not know this woman, why is he putting up with her aggression? The entire scene is inhabited by a sense of emotional unreality, as though real issues are being avoided. As though anger and resentment are being displaced and projected onto ostensibly ‘neutral’ topics.
This sense of unreality sits at the heart of Certified Copy – Miller’s book deals with the history of fake artworks and unrecognised copies. Though it is never directly addressed, Miller’s view on the topic appears to be that, because the history of culture is filled with instances in which copies and fakes have been seen as originals, the distinction between falsehood and authenticity is entirely arbitrary. Art speaks for itself regardless of authority. Conversely, the woman’s position appears to be that while the distinction between ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ art is in the minds of the art-lover, it does not necessarily follow from this that the value of a work of art is arbitrary. Authenticity, suggests the woman, flows from a genuine emotional response.
As the pair wander round the beautifully picturesque Tuscan village of Lucignano, the emotional tensions between them begin to grow. The woman is annoyed at her son and is annoyed at Miller’s refusal to accept her point of view. At times she is nearly hysterical and yet Miller remains beside her, coolly detached and yet interested.
A sea-change takes place in the film when they decide to to sit down and continue their conversation over coffee. Miller rushes outside to answer his phone and the old woman who runs to cafe says to the woman that he is a good husband to have. The woman responds that yes, he is a good man, but he is never there. He is forever travelling. He is distant. He does not care about their son. He has never bothered to learn Italian despite living there for five years. This scene seems to reinforce the feeling that there is something wrong with Binoche’s character. Is she some deranged stalker who, having latched onto Miller, has constructed a fantasy marriage for herself? Having teased us with this explanation for the film’s early emotional unreality, Kiarostami then cranks up the tension to eleven: Upon returning to the table, Miller does not merely play along with the woman’s mythologising, he actually embraces it. He speaks to her and others as though they were a married couple. This creates an astonishing sense of tension within Certified Copy: Will Kiarostami collapse the wave function by having Miller jerk himself out of this obvious lie or will he collapse the wave function by revealing how it is that a two people can be both a married couple of fifteen years standing and complete strangers?
Certified Copy is a beautifully acted film. Kiarostami lingers on the faces of his actors and frequently (for reasons that will become obvious) keeps his camera focused tightly not upon the face of the person speaking but upon the face of the person listening. It is a film that revels in those minute flickers of emotion that play across a human face as it is confronted by the world. As a result of this focus, we are placed with a similar intellectual dilemma as the film’s characters; what is real? is it that which we are told by the plot (namely that the couple only just met each other), or is it the pangs of human empathy we feel because of those beautifully emoting human faces? At times it is tempting to just accept Certified Copy’s narrative surrealism for what it is and focus one’s engagement with the film upon the realistic and beautifully complex relationship reaching crisis point before us but Kiarostami denies us this certainty by continually drawing our attention to Certified Copy’s status as a work of art.
When the film speaks of a golden tree beneath which the couple got married, it does not show us the tree itself, it shows us the couple looking at it. When the film structures an argument around a work of statuary in a local piazza, it does not show us the statue, it shows us the couple looking at it. When people speak, they just as frequently speak off camera as they do on. Again and again, Kiarostami draws our attention to something that we cannot see. If the world of the film was the real world then we would be able to turn around and just look at the statue, or the tree, or the face of the person speaking but because it is Kiarostami who frames the shots we cannot. This is not the real world, it is only a filtered and artificially contrived imitation of it.
The beauty of Certified Copy lies neither in its elegant and moving portrayal of a relationship crisis, nor in its intriguing deconstruction of many of the conceits of so-called cinematic realism, but in its ability to pursue both of these aims at the same time by layering them in such a way as to attempt to produce something, to re-use Barthes’ terminology, that trembles with existence.
Josipovici’s diagnosis of the Modernist stance is owes much to Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero (1953), as Terry Eagleton points out in the chapter on Post-Structuralism in Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) :
“if history seems to have lost direction and lapsed into chaos, it is always possible to put all of this ‘in brackets’, ‘suspend the referent’ and take words as your object instead. Writing turns in on itself in a profound act of narcissism, but always troubled and overshadowed by the social guilt of its own uselessness. Unavoidably complicit with those who have reduced it to an unwanted commodity, it nevertheless strains to free itself from the contamination of social meaning, either by pressing towards the purity of silence […] or by seeking an austere neutrality, a ‘degree zero of writing’ which would hope to appear innocent but which is in reality […] just as much a literary style as any other.” [p. 122]
The challenge for Modernism is to produce artwork that is both self-aware without being vacantly philosophical and emotional without being contrived. Certified Copy’s layering of philosophical cleverness with intense emotional truth goes some way to achieving this end; It provokes thoughts, feelings, doubts and certainties but without ever providing a proscriptive solution to the problems it seeks to engage with. It perfectly embodies the challenge of Modernism by acknowledging the fact that the challenge can never be resolved. The film’s final shot is of Miller staring into the bathroom mirror. His face is utterly unreadable and yet all questions depend upon it to provide an answer: will he stay with his wife or will he leave her? is he actually married to her or is he merely playing along? is the relationship real because it has a real history or is it real because it is subject to the emotions of the couple? do arguments in relationships rely upon facts and reason or upon dislocated and projected emotional turmoil that is simply working itself out in the form of an argument over whether or not someone should be blamed for falling asleep? We cannot read the emotions on Miller’s face because we cannot solve the challenge of Modernism. A challenge that Kiarostami articulates with relentless intelligence and perfect emotional poise.