In musician John Cale’s 1999 autobiography What’s Welsh for Zen, he recalls a particularly turbulent, chaotic period of his life, and offers an intriguing analogy for the experience: “This was something close to cinema. A vicarious, unstable reality”. (1) His assumption is striking: cinema, so often conceived as offering us a whole world, a slice of reality, is here something not only emotionally close to us – a vicarious, substitute life – but also as fundamentally discontinuous and unstable, a world in pieces.
In Certified Copy – among the greatest films of the 2010s – a man named James (William Shimell) and a woman who is never named (Juliette Binoche) begin, at some weird, unannounced moment, a role-play game with one another.
They have been strangers (or so we assume), but suddenly they are as-if husband and wife, arguing through all the old tensions, difficulties and unresolved business. The woman seems to initiate the game – perhaps gripped by a mad, projective, emotional delirium – and the man, after a delicious split-second of absolute perplexity, decides (it seems) to just go along with it, perhaps for a thrill, perhaps to help her (via a kind of “theatre sport”) to get through this unfortunate but critical moment of hallucination.
Beyond that initial turnaround point (anticipated in a key moment of the same director’s classic Close-Up  when we see, during a bus ride chat with a fellow passenger, Hossain Sabzian’s spontaneous decision to impersonate Mohsen Makhmalbaf), however, the co-ordinates of the tale become increasingly murky; stories are told and each character begins to inhabit them …
Everything is set up through careful ambiguities and hesitations, things deliberately left unspoken or never made clear in the first instance. Certified Copy is a puzzle-film without a solution; there is no exit to its mystery, at least not upon the final frame of its open ending. The synopsis I have just matter-of-factly offered is, finally, only an interpretation, or a proposition, or a rough guess.
For Alain Bergala – to cite another such proposition – what the film shows is something altogether different, a narrative “palimpsest” in which the characters are “at the same time in the process of meeting each other, at the fifteen-year point of their relationship, and as what they have become today” in their shared old age. (2) In that view, the film has more in common with the surrealism of Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), with its two different actresses taking turns in the same role, than the dramatic snapshot of a couple-in-crisis which is Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1953) – another evident influence on Kiarostami. (3)
Whatever the game is, this man and woman on screen (sensationally well acted) lose themselves in it, and the effect for the spectator is exhilarating, liberating; we end up gladly losing the thread of our original, common sense assumptions. It is one of those films that (as Luc Moullet said of Raúl Ruiz’s The Blind Owl ) you “know a little less about with each viewing”; (4) today I remain as blissfully in the dark as to what is really happening in it as on my first encounter. These people in Certified Copy become what they play at, what they “act out” (to cite a wildly popular expression), what they pretend (for whatever unfathomable reason) to be. They utterly transform, metamorphose themselves.
They are, in this sense, pure creatures of cinema – and so their reality is vicarious and unstable. One can view them as the “certified copy” of some other couple – perhaps some frolicsome movie couple, in fact, out of a Hollywood romantic comedy, hashing out their adventure of remarriage, or escapees from some contemporary faux-travelogue under the Tuscan sun. But their transformation, in and of itself, is radical – unsettling, mysterious, total. It suddenly shifts the whole film, kicks it onto another plateau entirely – without announcing this to us at all. In Bergala’s terms, “everything happens as if this forceful imposition of another, mental logic upon reality was entirely self-evident, part of the normal regime of cinema”. (5) The film itself metamorphoses, as few films have the courage to do.
It is a matter a leap, an ellipse, a sudden edit – but an edit of the being, of character, of the soul itself, not over the fiddle of a cut, but right in the middle of a real time-space, mid-gesture and mid-scene. There is a scalding closeness of cinema to life in this move. But the ellipses and the closeness occur not through drugs (Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, 2009), traumatic violence (Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, 2010), or operatic trance-ecstasy (as in the films of Werner Schroeter or Carmelo Bene); here the voyage is the daily one, the voyage of the emotions, of moods and their sudden, seizing effects.
We can relate the ellipse in Certified Copy to the ellipse in every real-life encounter of significance, every relationship: a line is crossed, the fantasy sets in (for good or for ill), and neither person knew exactly when or how it has happened. Love is the intersection of two fantasies, with all the potentiality for disastrous mismatch and unalignment implied by that … But it has occurred, and the adventure has to be played out, the consequences have to be faced – one way or another.
This is what can be called a wild psychoanalysis: a psychoanalysis that plays out not in the safe, ritualised distance between the analyst and the subject on his or her couch – but in life, transactionally, in motion, in flight (nobody ever stops walking, driving, talking in this film). With an air of constant improvisation and surprise: a psychodrama, but a daily kind of psychodrama. James Toback’s When Will I Be Loved (2004) was ahead of this curve, as is an aspect of the Dardennes’ Lorna’s Silence (2008). But, in those movies, it was still a matter of people lying, strategising, staging power games.
Certified Copy takes this type of play-acting (of a kind we see also in Maren Ade’s fabulous Toni Erdmann, 2016) to a different plateau, more ordinary and yet more mysterious, more compelling. Cinema is psychodrama, or it is nothing. Always risking, always at risk. Putting everything into play: self, other, time, place, sense.
There is an extreme, opposite pole of wild psychoanalysis in the contemporary cinematic field: inner or eyeball subjectivity put under pressure and trembling until it shatters into a thousand tiny fragments, contradictions, loops, short-circuits. Horror and psychedelia frequently try to go there, often (alas) in a shallow fashion. Certified Copy is the other, minimalist pole: serene, events viewed from a distance, a two-shot world with plenty of space and locale all around – the only possible reverse-field being the mirror/camera into which the imaginary lovers stare, individually, during the twin bathroom interludes that provisionally conclude their ambiguous game.
Excerpted from the chapter “Wild Psychoanalysis of a Vicarious, Unstable Reality” in my book Mysteries of Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2018 & University of Western Australia Publishing, 2020).
1. John Cale, What’s Welsh for Zen (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), p. 268. back
2. Alain Bergala, La Création cinéma (Crisnée: Yellow Now, 2015), p. 267. back
3. Ibid., pp. 267-268. back
5. Bergala, La Création cinéma, p. 268. back
© Adrian Martin January 2011 / October 2017