At Cannes: Abbas Kiarostami Baffles With Copie Conforme

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The legendary Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami returned on Tuesday to Cannes, where he won the Palme d'Or in 1997 for his film Taste of Cherry. Judging by the largely favorable critical response, he may have a another shot at an award with his much-loved and debated Juliette Binoche–starring Copie Conforme (Certified Copy). But a topic more important than filmmaking was on Kiarostami's mind -- he addressed the plight of jailed fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi.

A perennial favorite along the Criosette, Kiarostami has never really translated much outside the alt-film, art-house, and festival circuit. Don't expect Copie Conforme to serve as his breakout film -- should it find a U.S. distributor. On the surface, it's an at-times tedious though engaging look at a man and woman traveling through Tuscany. But as the title suggests, it's a much deeper look at an original versus a copy.

British author James Miller (played by the famous baritone William Shimmel) has come to Italy to give a reading from his latest book Copie Conforme. In the audience is woman, Juliette Binoche, who fidgets with her bored, iPod-listening son. At the end of the talk, Binoche passes a note to Miller, and the two of them quickly agree to spend the day traveling in and around Tuscany.

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As they travel -- having coffee, enjoying a dinner, visiting a hotel -- their history becomes a blur. Are they really husband and wife? They certainly appear to be, with Binoche prodding Miller to see if he remembers the hotel they went to on their wedding day. At other stops along the way, it seems as if they've just met. When Miller steps outside to take a phone call, a waitress at a cafe asks Binoche how long she's been married? "Fifteen years," she says, then goes on to explain not to Miller; he's not her husband.

The intent of the film is clearly to confuse, to make the viewer ponder what constitutes a copy and what makes an original. Insults are flung in Italian, responded to in French, fired back in English. Does it matter if they're husband and wife? No, according to Kiarostami.

It's tough to get particularly enthused about this film. Thankfully, it's saved from total tedium by Binoche, who zeros in and focuses on her character with absolute precision. Somehow, though, that didn't stop almost the entire row in which I was sitting to be rather loudly dozing off.

Answers were tough to get from Kiarostami, particularly when the main topic on the director's mind at today's press conference wasn't Copie Conforme itself but the jailing of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. At the opening of the press conference, Kiarostami took the mic and made an announcement. After thanking the press -- which had earlier circulated unconfirmed reports that Panahi had undertaken a hunger strike -- he addressed Panahi's plight.

"One cannot remain indifferent in this situation," Kiarostami said, elaborating on a letter he wrote in March in support of Panahi. "The fact that a filmmaker has been imprisoned is in itself intolerable," he conitinued, further jabbing at the Iranian government for jailing Panahi simply for making a film in a clandestine manner. Speaking of the charges, Kiarostami said, "It's not [Panahi's] responsibility alone. It's the responsibility of the authorities who prevented him from carrying out his profession... If the Iranian government continues to refuse to release Jafar... then at least we need explanations."

That's fair. But explanations are probably what a fair amount of viewers of Copie Conforme are looking for as well.



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