Unlike Keith I didn’t find style triumphed over content in this film – see here. Like the Before Sunrise-Midnight films, Abbas Kiarostami relies heavily on long takes, long conversations and entirely convincing performances. Of course Juliette Binoche can be expected to be absolutely wonderful but William Shimell . . . ? Kiarostami had directed him in a performance of a Mozart opera so knew he’d be up to the task; it’s inspired casting. Shimell has since appeared in Amour (2012).
Befitting of Kiarostami’s art house status, Certified Copy is more obviously intellectual than Richard Linklater’s films; which is not to say it’s better or worse. I wasn’t particularly interested in the philosophy of authenticity in art, or in relationships, but was riveted by the conversations, and the Tuscan landscape, that ran throughout the film. There’s a brilliant twist, about half way through so stop reading now if you plan to see the film.
It has appeared so far that Binoche’s Elle (a ‘universal’ ‘she’?) has been flirting with the intellectual James (Shimell) but, when they are mistaken as a married couple, she plays along with the error and then he too plays along . . . But are they or are they not actually married? It is a brilliant sleight of narrative that raises issues of longevity in relationships, memory, as well as gender roles. Unsurprisingly Kiarostami doesn’t bother to tell us the ‘truth’ of the situation, leaving us to ponder if we wish. I’m sure we’ll ponder the actors’ brilliance and, maybe, Kiarostami’s too. I’m not suggesting that his film is derivative in any way, he often uses long takes in his films and may have patented the car dashboard camera.
One clue to the film’s playfulness is surely the casting of Jean-Claude Carrière in a minor role. Carrière scripted a number of Luis Bunuel’s late films and surrealism is expertly interlaced with the ostensible realism of this film’s visual style and the performances.
This fascinating youth pic, from the Czech New Wave, both ‘universalises’ the teenage (or early-20s) experience and sets in squarely in its time. The time was just before the ‘Prague Spring’, but clearly government influence was already loosening, particularly with the relatively graphic nudity and the scene where the youth union meeting is satirised. Being a teenager yearning for a (sexual) relationship is the predominant narrative of youth pics and Czechoslovakia in the ’60s was no different. In fact, it was accentuated by the 16:1 ratio of women to men in the blonde’s (Andula) town, Zruc. To counteract the problem the local factory’s ‘social director’ persuades the army to move a garrison of men to the vicinity. However, they turn out to be middle aged reservists of little interest to Andula and her friends.
The troops’ arrival is one of many comic set pieces in the film. The girls, and the town, are full of hope until the balding men arrive who promptly march to their barracks singing a ridiculous song of blood and glory. Similarly in a dance hall three men bicker amongst themselves on how try of pick up the girls. They send a waiter with a bottle but it’s delivered to the wrong table. Writer-director Milos Forman’s observes all this affectionately, he is not mocking the small town travails of his characters.
As was much European cinema in the ’60s, the Czech New Wave was a ripple of the French nouvelle vague and the long conversations between characters reminded me of early Godard and there is a wonderful moment of Czech surrealism where a necktie is found around a tree when Andula walks through the wood for an assignation that never happens. The dancehall scene reminded me of the one in Billy Liar, shot three years earlier, emphasising how, in the sixties, youth culture was becoming internationalised.
Forman cast locals, mostly non actors, giving the film a realist edge that adds to the charm; it’s not surprising that Ken Loach often cites it as a favourite film. Its political edge is seen when the youth union meeting, of women, is asked to vote to be chaste. Only Andula, hiding at the back, doesn’t put up her hand in favour emphasising the conformism expected by the Establishment at the time. However, while she is something of a rebel, Andula is also a victim; she is betrayed by the smooth talking pianist. Their ‘love’ scene, with the recalcitrant blind, is funny. Overall the film is suffused with a melancholy tone; it entertains but doesn’t forget the pathos of young lust.
Roman (Thomas Schubert) is allowed out of a juvenile institution on ‘day release'; his job is at a morgue. So far so melodrama, especially as Roman is almost as emotionless as a corpse. We follow his faltering steps into the ‘real world’ as he tries to find a compass in a society that treats him with contempt; we don’t learn of his crime until well into the film.
The narrative progresses slowly, routinely; typically arthouse as it demands our patience as we wonder whether it’s better to actually live a life rather than watch someone else live theirs. However, it repays patience with intense drama, when Roman is sent to pick up a corpse in the street whilst a distraught wife is still clinging onto hope that her husband’s still alive, an an emotional payoff at the end when… well, I shan’t spoil it.
Death remains a taboo in western society; consumerism is driven in part by a desire to deny it: cosmetics for everyone. Breathing confronts death, particularly in the scene where the morgue attendants have to prepare a corpse of an old woman who has died at home. We get to see what we don’t wish to see as the deceased body is carefully attended to by men who, hitherto, have been generally unlikeable. It’s a particularly powerful scene.
It’s written and directed by Karl Markovics, who played the lead in the terrific The Counterfeiters (Aus-Ger, 2007) and I’m looking forward to his next film.
Jonathan Rosenbaum makes the point that while this film is about the forties, it’s set on the day of the Nazi surrender, it’s overlayed by a fifties’ sensibility. This is evident through the James Dean-like Zbigniew Cybulski (though Rosenbaum cites Brando) but also in the European Art cinema style in which its shot. The ‘heavy’ symbolism of the still above is a good example. Add to that the melodrama of the young man, who’s fighting against the Communists and wrestling with his conscience whilst falling in love with the beautiful, and melancholic, barmaid, you have cinema made for me.
This blu-ray edition looks terrific and so emphasises the wonderful cinematography with stunning Expressionist lighting. Director Andrezj Wadja was clearly influenced by Bergman, I love the horse that simply walks into the mise en scene, but also Welles, particularly his use of deep focus.
The film brilliantly dissects a moment in history when everything for Poland was going to change (except in a way it didn’t as they, once again, became dominated by a foreign power). The possiblities of the time, those grabbing power, the splintering of families due to the war, are all portrayed in an affecting human story. Cybulski plays Maciek who’s been sent to assassinate a Communist Party official; he fails but has the night to fulfill his task except that’s when he meets the barmaid.
The official’s son is part of the reactionary forces that are opposing the Russian takeover, however the bourgeoisie’s grab for power is in full swing anyway, shown by the small town major’s celebration at being appointed a minister. The climax of the party, where they are all drunkenly dancing to a bastardised version of a Polish national song, is truly surreal. As is the denouement for Maciek, in a setting worthy of Bunuel.
I’m not sure if Wadja’s in or out of fashion at the moment, very few of his recent films have been distributed in UK; he’s still making them and is 86 next Tuesday. Ashes and Diamonds forms the third in his ‘War Trilogy’, A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955) and Kanal (1957); there are all must-see films. The first two, the narratives are unconnected, have a pronounced debt to neo-realism; Ashes and Diamonds is a triumph of expressionist cinema.