Friday, April 29, 2011


By Stan Shapiro, BMFI Patron


Upon leaving this movie with another couple we found that we were split as to what actually was going on. This was specifically in reference to the relationship between Juliette Binoche and William Shimell who played the central characters. Most of the film concerned a drive through Tuscan countryside and villages by Binoche, as Elle, an antiques dealer, and Shimell as James, killing time until his 9 PM flight back to London. He had come there to give a talk plugging his new book, Certified Copy, which dealt with the aesthetics of forgeries and copies and related ideas about authenticity, plagiarism, copies vs originals. In his lecture, James reminded the audience that, from a biological point of view, the whole aim of existence is to make copies of yourself through replicating your DNA. Even La Gioconda is just a copy of the original person.

They seem, at first, not to be well acquainted at all and she, a French ex-pat who lives in Tuscany, appears to be showing him around and helping him pass the time until his flight. She has also bought six copies of his book as gifts that she wants him to sign. They begin to have a discussion about his book and the ideas in it. She acknowledges not liking it, espousing the idea of preferring life to be more simple and, if you like something, such as costume jewelry, then that is all that matters and not whether it is a copy or fake. He agrees and expresses admiration for her sister Marie whom she has described as personifying that kind of simplicity.

She takes him to a museum, possibly in Siena, to show him a portrait of a woman and the story behind it. The picture was revered for 200 years as a genuine Roman artifact until it was discovered to be a copy from a fresco in Herculaneum. It was commissioned in the 18th century by a Tuscan aristocrat and they were even able to discover who the painter was. Nevertheless the town continues to treat it as a treasure, referring to it as their La Gioconda. For Elle this is the essence of her position regarding real vs. copy; she puts her emphasis on how people respond to the work.

Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, is playing now at BMFI
Things start to get opaque, if not confusing, in a cafĂ©. He says he’s going to tell her a story. He was in Florence a few years ago in the piazza and there was a woman talking to a little boy in front of the David. And she was telling him about the statue but she didn’t reveal that this one was a copy. We see Elle as he’s talking; she becomes emotionally upset and a tear runs down her cheek. He also tells her about waking up in the morning there, and from his window, seeing a woman come out and start walking down the street. A boy comes out and follows her. She goes to the corner and turns to see if he is there and goes to the next corner, which he can see from his other window, and she turns again to see if he’s following. They never walk together. In an earlier scene Elle and her son leave the reading and go out to a cafe. The boy walks 10-15 feet behind her!

James then gets a phone call and he goes outside to take it. During this interval a discussion starts up between Elle and the patronne, a woman in her sixties, who takes them as a couple and begins philosophizing about marriage and a woman’s role. Men are all the same. They treat their jobs like a mistress; but it’s the same for a woman whether it’s a job or a mistress because the important thing is that she’s a married woman, etc. Elle allows her to believe they are married and even says that they have been married for fifteen years and have a son!

From there on one can never tell what the reality is. At times they talk and argue like an old married couple. It seems that, when they are speaking French (it suddenly turns out that he can speak French) they are married, and when they converse in English they are not. She tells a young couple just married that it is her own anniversary. The couple insist they have their picture taken together despite James’ objection. In a restaurant they have a spat where she accuses him of falling asleep and snoring on their anniversary and he blurts out that he doesn’t snore. Then he retaliates by reminding her of the time she fell asleep at the wheel driving back from Florence one night. She says she only nodded off and they quibble whether that is different from sleeping.

She goes into a church and he peers after her but stays outside. She emerges and goes to the steps of a small hotel and sits down. Elle has not gone in to pray but to take off her bra which was hurting her. She tells him that this is the piazza in which they spent their wedding night and he should guess which hotel they stayed at. He looks around, guesses wrong and comments wryly on how bad his memory is. She goes into the hotel where she is sitting and tells the clerk that she and her husband spent their wedding night fifteen years ago here in room number nine. If it’s free can they go up and look at it? Elle goes up and James follows. She says he should look out the window. He looks and can’t remember what he’s supposed to see. She tells him to look out the other window and he still doesn’t know. She has curled up seductively on the bed; James, though clearly uncomfortable, takes off his coat, and, instead of lying down with her, we next see him in the bathroom urinating. The church bells chime eight times (his plane is at nine) and the film ends.

While there are other sequences, they are similarly problematic as to what is the ‘reality.’ Are they married or are they just role playing? It's never clear. At one point in a restaurant, she goes to the ladies and puts on lipstick and chooses from several pairs of costume earrings in her purse. This action mirrors what she has said about her sister, using earrings as a specific example, being simple and going for what is pleasing regardless of value.

This film challenges our usual position of pretending that what we see is real and basing our understanding and judgments on that illusion. Here we can’t even pretend that what we see is supposed to be real. By being internally inconsistent, the film is deliberately upsetting that comfortable mind-set, scrambling reality in transgressive ways.

Looked at one way, it could be a film about two married people, estranged after fifteen years, coming together for an afternoon. Or, looked at from another angle, it could be two people meeting for the first time who fall into role playing the unfolding saga of such a troubled marriage. (The two windows in room number nine at the end may be emblematic of this multiple view.) Or it could be a pastiche of various moments of a fifteen-year marriage. Though we expect something resembling a linear perspective (a beginning, middle and end), instead, we are presented with a kaleidoscopic view of a relationship, seen at different times from different perspectives.

Perhaps this is the purpose: to shake up our views of conventional reality, the way a cubist painting, say, fractures our vision, distorting how ordinary objects or people appear. We really don't have to decide whether they are married or not. In this way the film achieves a more universal dimension chronicling moments and phases of relationships at various points and in between. The universality is reflected also in the choice of ‘Elle’ as Juliet’s name. Even more to the point, maybe we have to look at this film as being like Picasso’s Weeping Woman series: the facial features in particular, showing frontal and side views at the same time.

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