“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.