The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman has described a “backbeat of Marienbad” in his glowing review of Kiarostami’s critically acclaimed “Certified Copy.” The reference is well placed, but its relevance and emphasis some 40 years after the French art house shocker, I think, deserves further detail.
If you haven’t seen either film, a quick plot comparison: In Resnais’s masterpiece (a film I’ve returned to a number of times in the past two years, including its use as an identifying “gravatar” both here at Film Margins and elsewhere), the story centers on a man who spends his time at the Marienbad Hotel (whose intricately designed interior is worthy of a feature itself) convincing a beautiful woman of their amorous acquaintance the year prior. Certified Copy similarly revolves around two (possible) lovers, wrapped up in the tiny package of a Linklater afternoon love affair. In both films, it’s not entirely clear whether the relationship is one to continue or begin. (It’s entirely possible that Marienbad’s central male character is just a creepy guy with a deeply flawed pick up line.) And where authorial decisions are concerned, I wouldn’t argue that either Kiarostami or Resnais was particularly interested in the plot details. Why anyone would give two shits about the lives of over-privileged petty bourgeois Europeans wanking around honeymooners’ destinations snapping their fingers over “corky wine”, now or 40 years ago, will, I hope, always remain a mystery to me.
So forget the plot.
What really matters here is how each director is playing with the audience’s perception of the passage of time, whether by use of the failing memories (or crafty persuasions) of his nameless characters as a foil for attacking linearity (Marienbad) or maneuvering fluidly between different languages, identities, relationship histories and intellectual discourse in a fragmented, non-consistent manner (Certified Copy). In that sense, I’ve always seen in Marienbad Resnais’s pointed response to neorealism, an argument that a linear plot structure, the feeling of forward motion or story, with clearly demarcated beginning and end, problem identification and positive resolution, is an illusory notion that should be taken for granted neither in art nor life.
Kiarostami has arguably done Resnais one better, introducing into this discussion of fragmented reality a more concrete and explicit concern with themes of authenticity that have appeared in critics’ estimation of Marienbad. Certified Copy’s central characters, ostensibly complete strangers at the beginning of the film, adopt 15 years of marriage on the suggestion of a cafe waitress. It’s a copy, perhaps, of something they’ve seen along the way, either in life or fiction, but no less a “real”, momentary break in their status quo, even if by faking it, that they can call meaningful and life-affirming (sorry!).
While I’m at a loss to bring these notes to any real conclusion, I can admit to being challenged by the re-introduction of what are effectively existentialist themes en vogue almost half a century ago. Film Forum, it’s worth noting here, last month re-screened Marienbad, while this month saw the Bresson Festival, a schedule packed with the Existential (not least among which, the Dostoevskian Pickpocket). If you think I’m digging a little too deeply here, remember that we probably shouldn’t dismiss critics’ investigations into the current popularity of Zombie flicks and drama-horror series on television today as reflective of an end-times obsessed culture mired deep in the depredations of economic and political instability, a moment as good as any to think through our place in the world. Kiarostami’s is perhaps a welcomed harbinger of cinematic things to come, exemplifying, we might say, challenging humanist film making in an otherwise escapist, oftentimes fatalist, art environment.