11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
<strong>Copie Conforme</strong> (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
Imagine <em>Saw</em> if it had been made by Béla Tarr.
Okay, I know I'm getting even more disbelieving looks than usual here, but let's face it: <em>Copie Conforme</em> is a Big Reveal movie, just as <em>Saw</em> is. Looked at in that regard, the ambiguity that so many people talk about pretty much goes away; there's a mystery to be solved here. The only difference is that it's not the characters who are trying to solve the mystery; they know everything, and because they know everything, they have no reason to explain it to themselves. We, the audience, are trying to work out the relationships here. And Kiarostami is, for most of the film, about as interested as the characters are in helping us work that out; in many of the movie's scenes, in fact, he is consciously obfuscating things, and the way the film is shot makes that all too plain. As to where the Tarr part comes in, aside from Kiarostami's wonderful soundplay and a few shots all to reminiscent of the Hungarian master, Tarr's movies, be they his shorter crime films (e.g., <em>The Man from London</em>) or his longer meditations on the fall of the Soviet Union (e.g., <em>Sàtàntangó</em>), the structure of every Tarr film is the same: languid save one moment of unadulterated violence.
The film opens with a talk at a university. Actually, the film opens with with the audience (both in the cinema and on the screen) waiting for a talk at a university. It is to be given by James Miller (William Shimell is his first big-screen appearance), a cultural historian who has wandered into the art world, according to his own later declamations, seemingly by accident. His book, which has the same name as the film, has won some sort of obscure prize, and he's giving the thank-you speech. Or he will, if he ever gets there. (This is important.) He eventually does show up, and launches into his speech, which he gives in a mixture of English and stumbling Italian (I assume it's meant to be stumbling, but I don't have nearly enough knowledge of what Italian is supposed to sound like despite my <em>giallo</em> fetish). As he's getting started, a woman and her son slip in and find their way to the reserved seating. This, we find out later, is Elle (Juliette Binoche), a local antiques dealer. She is unable to stay for the entire lecture, so she slips James' friend, the university professor who introduced him, her number and takes her son Julian (<em>Im Schwitzkasten</em>'s Adrian Moore) for a burger. The two of them have a conversation that seems mundane, but ends up perhaps provoking more thought than anything in the film. In any case, later that morning, Elle presumably gets a call from James, who shows up in her antique shop. She promises to show him something interesting if he's got the time to spare; he replies that he has to be back in time to catch a nine o'clock train. No problem, and they depart Arezzo for Lucignano, which we are told is half an hour away or thereabouts. They see what she has come to show him, but it's after that that things get interesting, as we start to question not the nature of their relationship, but the way Kiarostami has presented their relationship to us.
Not helping the matter is that Kiarostami, who also wrote the script, is involved in constant misdirection as to what the mystery even <em>is</em> (the question I hear most asked, and the one it was easiest to answer by halfway through the film, is "dis these people know each other before the movie started?"). Again, not that he hides this fact from us at all; this is "mystery" in its most existential form, and also again, there's no mystery in the film itself. Everyone there knows what's going on, even the people who have never met these folks before, including the proprietor of a local coffee shop (<em>Tea with Mussolini</em>'s Gianna Giachetti) and an older couple Elle ropes into a discussion on a statue in a little square in Lucignano (<em>La Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie</em>'s Jean-Claude Carriére and <em>Micmacs</em>' Agathe Natanson). In case you haven't noticed, this movie has one hell of a cast, which makes it even more impressive that Shimell, who previously had acted in a few made-for-TV movies, holds his own against them. (Even more impressive is Adrian Moore, whose part is small, but wonderful.) But I digress. Kiarostami is using this to slap us in the face, as it were, with how we simply don't get it. (Don't worry, there's more to this tale than anyone else gets, either.) But the slap, as it did in his wonderful <em>Ta'm e Guilass</em>, comes with a velvet glove. After all, Kiarostami is doing his best to confuse you. Take the beginning of that car ride, while the two of them are still in Arezzo. There's a long, languid conversation, some joking. All the while they're driving through the narrow streets, and you can see the buildings on either side reflected in the windshield. The buildings on either side of the street are different, but constant, colors, so the view of James is always occluded by off-white, whereas the view of Elle is always occluded with a sort of terracotta yellow. (I wish I'd been paying enough attention to be able to make some salient comment on the changes in conversation when they pass into shadow.) This sort of occlusion is present throughout, as we often see the characters through, or in, reflections, both from glass (display cases, picture windows, etc.) and in mirrors. As well, remember I talked about Tarr and soundplay? There are times when we can't hear what James and Elle are saying thanks to the soundplay. The mike will focus on a presenter at a small museum talking about a piece of art, or a traveling accordion player (how Tarr is that?) will pass between the camera and the couple, and we will hear nothing of them, or the people they're talking to.
The mirrors are especially important in a movie where every shot is blocked with importance. While Kiarostami is interested in obfuscation, there's a point where you can't obfuscate any more. Ironically (and meant as such), the two times when our main characters are most naked is a long, stationary shot in a mirror. While I can't say more without spoiling it, the placement of these two shots is perhaps the most important thing in the film for figuring out the mystery (the solution to which is there for all to see in the film's final spoken line, by the way).
The one place it falls just shy of genius is in the conversation Elle has with Julian. Taken on its own, it is an excellent scene, full of the little details that make this movie wonderful. But in the greater context, it serves only to throw confusion onto confusion. It's the one place that Kiarostami's obfuscation becomes manipulation, and the scene--and the film--suffers for it.
Is that a reason not to see it? Of course not. Even Roger Ebert, whose distaste for Kiarostami is legendary (his reaction to <em>Ta'm e Guilass</em> started a friendly rivalry between Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum that continues to this day, and the first sentence of his review of <em>Ten</em> is "I am unable to grasp the greatness of Abbas Kiarostami."), gave the film three and a half stars, though the text of the review itself strikes me as lukewarm at best ("[f]or me, it is too clever by half, creating full-bodied characters but inserting them into a story that is thin soup."). This is another way in which Kiarostami reminds me of Tarr: even if you've no idea what's going on, the film is so beautiful, and the characters so intriguing, the movie's worth seeing. But unlike Tarr, whose movies are so often about nothing but the day-to-day life of his characters, Kiarostami does, in fact, have a Big Reveal. It's subtle enough, however, that even people who saw it and half-understood its significance often don't make the (to me obvious) final leap. Give it a shot and see if you hit the bullseye. *** ½