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Iran’s “No Date, No Signature” Asks Why It’s So Hard for Men to Face What They’ve Wrought

Much like the work of his countrymen Asghar Farhadi and the late Abbas Kiarostami, writer-director Vahid Jalilvand’s No Date, No Signature is a soberly made piece of melodramatic neorealism featuring just-trying-to-live characters who are forced to make moral decisions in a world where doing the right thing is usually a luxury that cannot be afforded. It is at heart a film about two men making the wrong decision at the exact same time.

On a highway at night, an aggressive speeding driver causes forensic pathologist Kaveh Nariman (Amir Aghaei) to knock a family of four, all riding a single motorcycle, off the highway. The doctor pulls over and checks to see if they’re all OK, even though — as we later learn — his insurance has expired. The only one who appears to have injuries is a small boy, who is suffering a slight pain in the back of his head. The doctor advises them to go to the nearest clinic to get checked out, but Moosa (Navid Mohammadzadeh), the boy’s father, ignores this and drives into the night.

You can probably see where this is going. The boy’s dead body winds up at Nariman’s hospital. Even though the autopsy rules that the kid died of botulism, a shocked and shaken Nariman keeps himself distant from the family, hiding in plain sight while trying to determine whether the accident was the true cause.

For a movie centered around the needless death of a child, Jalilvand (Wednesday, May 9) creates a heartbreaking but still hopeful story. As it’s consistently pointed out throughout, Nariman is an upstanding doctor, examining abused women on the low and cursing out colleagues who botch autopsies. Once Nariman learns of the boy’s death, Aghaei effectively gives off a pained, ashamed vibe for most of the movie. You can plainly catch the guilt eating up Nariman, even when his back is to the camera.

As the dad who unfortunately gave his son the stale meat that led to contracting botulism, Mohammadzadeh plays guilt in a more explosive, tortured manner. In a scene where Moosa goes to a meat factory to beat down the worker who sold him bad meat, Mohammadzadeh goes back and forth between screaming in anger and sobbing uncontrollably. I’ve never seen an actor convey the rage and confusion a parent must go through after the sudden death of a child as convincingly.

No Date, No Signature stirs up a lot of emotions, but it mostly puts you in the shoes of two men who each had a chance to make the correct choice — and who fail miserably, and pay dearly. Ultimately, after causing much damage to others either physically or mentally, they both come to the realization that they must take responsibility for their actions. You might expect Jalilvand’s movie to play as commentary on how men in that part of the world let their pride and stubbornness get in the way of making logical decisions. But the moral conundrums — and eventual, tragic aftermath — the characters face prove universal. In the dog-eat-kennel times we’re living in now, No Date, No Signature presents a story of flawed but generally decent people trying to put right what went so horribly wrong.

 

No Date, No Signature
Directed by Vahid Jalilvand

Distrib Films US
Opens August 1, Film Forum

 

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‘It Helps to Love Without Possessing the Person’: An Interview With Juliette Binoche

Juliette Binoche is radiant — there’s no better word to describe the French actress, who shows up to our interview beaming in a cream-colored suit and baby-pink dress shirt. Hers is the kind of presence that demands attention. In her latest film, the Claire Denis–directed Let the Sunshine In (currently in theaters), the camera is almost always fixated on her, often in close-up, as it follows Binoche’s character, Isabelle, falling in and out of relationships with various men. The intimate camerawork allows Binoche to be subtle in her emoting, especially in the way her face reacts to different situations. In this complicated study of love and the pursuit of it, Binoche gives us a protagonist who is relatable yet frustrating, desirable yet naïve, someone whose perseverance propels the plot and perhaps reflects the filmmaker’s own outlook on romance. (Denis uses the presence and music of Etta James — specifically “At Last” — as a motif throughout.)

Binoche spoke to the Voice last week about reuniting with Denis on her forthcoming sci-fi film High Life and what it was like to work with the late, great Abbas Kiarostami.

You’re one of my favorite actresses, and Claire Denis is one of my favorite directors. How did she ask you to be in this film?

She asked me to read the script and see if I wanted to do it. It was as simple as that. I didn’t see all the layers when I read the script quickly the first time, but as soon as we started getting into it, I could see the humor in it. That was good, because it’s a sort of a comic tragedy. This lady is always going into love with a lot of hope, with a sort of innocence. In a way, that is ageless: this need of jumping in, and yet not being frightened to be knocked out, in a way. Because you need courage to go back when you’ve been hurt already before.

It’s very relatable. Different people read this movie different ways. Some say it’s optimistic, others say it’s exhausting. How do you feel?

The first time I saw it, I laughed a lot. The second time I saw it, I didn’t laugh as much. I really saw the tragic side of it. But I could see the comedy the first time, so I think it depends on the mood you’re in and at what kind of stage you’re in in your love life.

Yeah, true.

But she’s alone, she’s taking care of a child by herself, she’s in a sort of a [needy] place. A need for not feeling alone anymore. And it seems that work doesn’t fulfill that need. But it’s interesting because I think that when you overcome that need, you’re not putting that need on a man, then you may have a chance to have a man. But when your need is so big of a void, you’re trying to resolve something in you, and anticipate things, or push things in with too much will. It can kill the other person’s freedom, in a way. So it’s an interesting reflection on love and relationships.

When I spoke with Denis, she said, “The pursuit of true love is never exhausting.” I was surprised to hear that from her.

Well, what does true love mean? The Greeks had many ways of describing love, from the baby sucking the breast to get the milk, [to] the agape, which is love beyond interest, spiritual love. So there are many layers, but what we often mix together is the need and the love. And that’s important to define, in a way, because we tend to mix it. Because the need grabs you, takes you in. But when you understand that, then it feels a little better understanding how the human structure is made. It helps to love someone without necessarily possessing the person.

There are three big things that we all go through: the need of possession, the need of power, and the need of enjoyment. But when you liberate yourself from those three big things, then love might come to you. And I think it’s so true that love comes to you more than you go to love. And allowing the love to work on you, be with you, and not always thinking that it’s a power thing …

I heard that you had a lot to do with selecting the wardrobe for your character, and making her very sexy.

That’s interesting Claire says that because she wanted to film a woman of desire. So the short skirts are her idea, some of the boots are her idea, and I was quite surprised. I thought maybe it’s a Joan of Arc of love, you know, that she’s going with courage into relationships with different men and trying to feel fulfilled and happy. But one day when we had lunch together, I was wearing this sweater, the black and red sweater and a white T-shirt. She said, “Oh, I want that.” So she took it. My way of dressing that day became Isabelle’s way of dressing.

Oh, I remember that outfit. Yeah, Claire said she wanted a lot of cleavage.

Yeah, that’s what she wanted. Absolutely. A woman of desire. And she was comparing the French woman to the American woman. That’s a French woman. And I never thought that way, but she had more of a clear idea about how she wanted it.

There’s a lot of Etta James in the movie; she’s your character’s idol, in a way. She’s sensitive and strong, and provides a musical anchor. Do you have an artist like that in your personal life?

I had a message from Claire saying, “Etta James: very important character for me for that film.” And she left a second message repeating the same thing. So I thought, “Why Etta James?” And then listening to her voice and reading about her life, I realized she went through dark love stories. She was a drug addict, but she always went to love with such courage. It was probably important for Claire because it was related to a certain point of her life. So I respected it and I said to her, “But why don’t we call Isabelle ‘Etta’?” She thought about it for a while but she stuck with Isabelle.

But do I have characters like that? I inspire myself with a lot of different people when I star in films or plays, so yeah, I’ve been obsessed with a lot of different characters or singers or dancers and actors for specific plays or characters. I was listening to Etta James all the time, and the first day of shooting was me dancing.

In the club? I love that scene.

She goes into that space to dance by herself, being in need of love and not being fulfilled, and then he comes like an angel into her life. That was something for me, because I felt so exposed. And when you have to jump into a movie like that for the first day, it’s wonderful in a way, because there’s no trying to hide. You’ve got to jump into it. That was a good start.

And then you did Denis’s next movie, High Life. What was that like, to work with her right after?

I finished High Life in October or November. It’s very rare to shoot with the same director in the same year with very different projects. I was surprised. I love Claire. There’s a woman in her that is not conventional, who’s saying what she’s feeling, who loves shooting people in their own truth. She has a great sense of dignity and respect. And yet, using people as she sees them, there’s an honesty in her work that I appreciate. She’s going through anguish, anxiety, and all [that], but she would speak it out so you’ll know where her ship is. There’s not a hidden place in her. She will speak out.

She really seems to think out everything in her films.

Yes, everything. While working on Let the Sunshine In, I must have said something, maybe with a negative connotation, and I was not even aware of it, and she got upset. It was the first time, and I was wondering, “Why did she get upset at that moment?” And then I thought, “Ah. It’s because she only wants to have positive energy around her.” Because it’s so difficult to make a film already. And then when I figured that out, I was always with the wind where she wanted to go. I was always on her side and on the film’s side. That’s probably why the energy together was so smooth and intense, but very much hand-to-hand.

One thing I love about this movie is how close she shoots you; you have such a great face for micro-expressions. Just the way your expression changes when a man is talking to you and you’re reacting, but you’re sort of holding it back. There’s humor, there’s tragedy, and you express that so well.

Well, when you have a director who allows you to just be, that’s really as simple as that. And there’s no judgment; there’s just the pleasure of lifting it into a place where it’s possible. There’s no anticipation, no fear. It’s just that we’re going through that place of the moment of the shooting. But I felt there was genuinely an easy way of working. She trusted me, and vice versa.

One of my favorite films of yours is Certified Copy. I’d love to hear what Abbas Kiarostami was like; he’s dearly missed in the film world. Also, did you see 24 Frames?

You know, I went to Criterion, and I took 24 Frames! I haven’t seen it yet. We enjoyed each other’s company, and he was a warm person with lots of humor. He enjoyed sharing the process of filming, and making a story, and the reflection on men and women. He was a special person. I’m so happy I was able to speak to him before he left, because I didn’t see him, unfortunately, but I did speak to him very late because I made a mistake with the time difference. I phoned him at one o’clock in the morning his time and he answered, and he was so sweet.

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Reality Stars: “The Non-Actor” Surveys Amateur Performance in the Movies

“An actor in cinematography might as well be in a foreign country,” the French director Robert Bresson wrote. “He does not speak its language.” By 1975, when he published his volume of aphorisms and stylistic guidelines, Notes on the Cinematograph, Bresson had already made more than a half-dozen films without the use of professional actors. These works, according to the director, sever the umbilical cord that links movies to theater by “creating” rather than merely “reproducing.” Crucial to this, for Bresson, was the role of the non-actor — or “model,” in his terminology — who would bring to films the qualities of real life rather than just simulation.

These ideas were a deliberate rejection of how most people — including most filmmakers — think of film performance. No stunt-casting or above-title billing for Bresson: He wanted a certain austere, idiosyncratic quality in his performers that he could only find in the unknown and the untutored. (And, quite famously, he became annoyed when his “models,” like Anne Wiazemsky and Dominique Sanda, wanted to pursue acting careers.) Bresson’s results may not strike viewers as particularly realistic: His models often stare affectlessly into space and deliver dialogue in a clipped, uninflected monotone. But while these theories of performance are no doubt extreme, they’re not altogether unusual: The nonprofessional performance casts a long shadow in the history of the cinema.

This phenomenon is now the subject of a new Film Society of Lincoln Center series, “The Non-Actor” (November 24–December 10), an expansive survey of films that similarly exhibit the talents of the untrained performer. Drawing together nearly three dozen films, the program traces a fascinating lineage of amateur performance across history, geography, and genre. From agitprop and docufiction to neorealist art cinema and Warholian experimentation, the series highlights some of the inventive ways filmmakers have enlisted the non-actor to create new hybrids of the real and the imaginary.

Representing Bresson in the series is his 1966 Au hasard Balthazar, starring the ultimate non-actor: a donkey. But while Bresson’s project marks one extreme for non-professional performance, other examples are not always so rigorous or rule-bound. Frequently, the casting of non-actors serves as a practical bulwark, whether against a lack of cash needed to hire available stars or against spontaneous challenges to the nature of any given production. The great mid-century African-American director Spencer Williams — already a seasoned performer and filmmaker in both Hollywood and independently produced “race films” — cast his oneiric, microbudget religious parable The Blood of Jesus (1941) with nonprofessional actors from the film’s rural Texas locations. Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, too, made Our Beloved Month of August (2008) with locals found in the rural village of Arganil where he was shooting after the money for the production fell through — a development that becomes a subplot of the film’s languorously convoluted pivot between fact and fiction.

Chinese director Liu Jiayin’s films have a similar economy of means: For her first film, Oxhide (2005), she cast herself and her parents in a raucous comedy-melodrama set entirely in the family’s five-hundred-square-foot Beijing apartment. In just twenty-three long-take set-ups — each shot with the heightened claustrophobia of a tight Cinemascope close-up — Oxhide enlists the trio in a scripted story of financial strain in contemporary China modeled closely on their real lives, but is mostly effective as an intimate group self-portrait of gossiping, working, bickering, and especially eating. (Liu continued the film four years later with a sequel: 2009’s Oxhide II.)

Jean Rouch’s “Jaguar” is a variation on what the director termed “ethno-fiction.”

Traditionally, of course, the non-actor is enlisted to help lend a veneer of naturalism to the otherwise wholly staged. This is, curiously, the legacy of documentary — at least as it was first conceived, by the American ethnographer Robert Flaherty. Compared with the cinema vérité works that would become the fashion in the ’60s and ’70s, Flaherty’s documentaries are really fictions produced with non-actors on their home turf. If films like Nanook of the North (1922) or Man of Aran (1934) feel staged, if not wholly fictitious, that’s because they were. The Film Society’s Flaherty offering here, Louisiana Story (1948), features winsome characters (including a wily pet raccoon) in thrilling dramatic sequences. The largely tensionless premise — the friendly encounter between a Cajun family and the nice oil-drillin’ folks at Standard Oil, who commissioned the film — becomes secondary to the subtropical wonders and perils of the bayou, photographed in all its mossy, swampy glory by the great cinematographer Ricky Leacock.

“The Non-Actor” features a number of variations on Flaherty’s brand of docufiction, including Tabu (1931) — a romantic Polynesian idyll that the German director F.W. Murnau, known for his exquisite blocking and lavish set design, conceived in collaboration with Flaherty — as well as the work of the French ethnographer Jean Rouch. Jaguar (1954/1967), Rouch’s hilariously anarchic variation on the form and an example of what he termed “ethno-fiction,” enlists a trio of Songhai men to reenact their migration from Sahel in Niger to the Gold Coast in search of work. Onscreen, the group offer a kind of hammed-up demonstration of their travels, while on the soundtrack they collectively send up the traditional “voice of God” narration of the Western ethnographer with their own insights and wisecracks.

The non-actor’s role often helps to interrupt or complicate the cinema’s storied powers of illusion, as in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s sublime casting of a nineteen-year-old Spanish economics major and anti-fascist activist as Jesus in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964), or in Abbas Kiarostami’s famously delirious collaboration with cinephile and con-man Hossain Sabzian in Close-Up (1990). But counterintuitively, their presence often helps to create an illusion all its own: the reproduction of “real life” through the use of “real people.” This is the paradoxical magic of neorealism, developed so persuasively by postwar Italian directors who derived a special kind of deconstructed authenticity from location-shooting and the casting of non-professionals. Directors like Roberto Rossellini (Germany Year Zero [1948]), Vittorio De Sica (Umberto D. [1952]), and Ermanno Olmi (Il Posto [1961]) mainstreamed a certain sense of rawness that would prove immensely influential on independent and arthouse pieces produced all over the world: Satyajit Ray’s aching portrait of Bengali village life, Pather Panchali (1955); Shirley Clarke’s swinging, improvisatory adaptation of Warren Miller’s novel about Harlem street gangs, The Cool World (1963); Matt Porterfield’s semifictional study of Baltimore kids, Putty Hill (2010). Why fake it, after all, if you have the real thing close at hand?

Shirley Clarke lent a swinging, improvisatory energy to her adaptation of Warren Miller’s novel “The Cool World.”

In neorealism, the presence of the non-actor lends that note of gritty verisimilitude that can’t quite be reproduced by the professional actor — a fact that the Argentine director Lisandro Alonso gorily confirms in his 2004 Los Muertos, in which he films his lead non-actor, Argentino Vargas, killing and butchering a goat in one unbroken long take. But it also serves the perhaps-humane gesture of returning the right of self-representation to those who are often most denied it.

Commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928) epically re-creates the events of 1917 with an enormous cast of non-actors, the better to represent those world-shaking ten days as an insurrection of the people. This project has been taken up in surprising ways. Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961) is a collaborative semidocumentary portrait of indigenous youth culture in Los Angeles, a volatile mix of staged and observational sequences and a shared auto-ethnographic voiceover. Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl (1966), too, generates much of its power from the performance of its lead non-actor, Mbissine Thérèse Diop, and her psychological distance from the exploitative culture of wealth and whiteness that surrounds her. And even in Albert Serra’s adaptation of Don Quixote, 2006’s Knight’s Honor, there’s an element of provocation in recasting Spain’s national heroes with a pair of Catalan nonprofessionals, subverting any trace of period-piece stylization with gruff, understated performances and grungy digital video.

The British filmmaker Peter Watkins took Eisenstein’s notion of a collectivist reenactment project to its furthest extent. In 1971’s Punishment Park, Watkins extrapolates from the then-recent trial of the Chicago Seven a dystopian war game between leftwing activists and militarist police officers for which he cast people according to their actual political backgrounds and beliefs. Filmed in the language of vérité, Watkins’s quasi-sci-fi scenario often blurs with the actual tensions among cast members that he captures onscreen — tensions which very nearly bubbled over into actual conflicts on set. (Lizzie Borden executes a similar mode of future imagining in her bad-ass 1983 feminist masterpiece Born in Flames.)

If anything, though, “The Non-Actor” demonstrates the inherent volatility in the way that cinema continually tries to capture and recapture a sense of reality that is always just beyond its grasp. The amateur performers in these films may be playing versions of themselves or wholly fictitious figures, but always their presence usefully interrupts the cinema’s usual project of crafting a too-perfect illusion of the real. After all, our IRL identities are nothing like the contiguous entities we see and hear onscreen in most commercial films.

In the brilliant short feature Flat Is Beautiful (1999), Sadie Benning illustrates this succinctly by having non-actors — including protagonist Taylor, a young tomboy exploring their gender identity — wear cartoonish paper masks over their faces. Filming working-class Milwaukee in jagged, black-and-white Super8 and PixelVision, Benning highlights the many complications of “authenticity,” using the non-actors’ masks to evoke the often-prescribed nature of identity from which the film’s protagonist is attempting to break free. Much like Pedro Costa’s work — instanced in the Film Society’s series with his extraordinary Colossal Youth (2006) — Benning’s film doesn’t so much mine its non-actors for their sense of “unfiltered reality” as use them to foreground the incommensurable mix of sincerity and performance that make up all of our many real-life identities.

“The Non-Actor”
Film Society of Lincoln Center
November 24–December 10

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Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us Is a Mystery of Ineffable Beauty

The mastery of Abbas Kiarostami is most evident, perhaps, in his restraint, in the depth he suggests through omission. His films routinely aspire to the frustration of curiosity: Audiences are intrigued by their mysteries, teased into fascination, and finally abandoned without the satisfaction of closure. But it’s precisely the absence of answers that makes the questions endure. This is the key to their richness.

In Taste of Cherry, the fate of a man seeking death is obscured by an invitation to ponder our own morality. In Shirin, we study the faces of women as they remain transfixed by a movie screen we never see. The Wind Will Carry Us, one of Kiarostami’s greatest, likewise bristles with secrecy, and much of its mystique is derived from the sensation that important information is being held just out of view.

We faintly glean that this is the story of Behzad (Behzad Dourani), a broadcast journalist (and director surrogate) assigned to cover an unusual funeral ceremony in a remote Kurdish village hundreds of miles outside of Tehran. But the event that occasions Behzad’s rural sojourn proves of less interest to Kiarostami than the time spent waiting around for it to transpire.

This is a deeply, patiently observational film, and the details Kiarostami emphasizes — a dung beetle struggling to haul away its bounty, an apple rolling haphazardly across an uneven floor, a bone floating down a stream — seem somehow profound in their banality, a mystery of ineffable beauty.

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Like Someone in Love Teases the Realm of the Senses

Like the yearning Jimmy Van Huesen/Johnny Burke torch song that lends it its title, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love is a sly, teasing riff on the heart’s irrational stirrings. But the film’s true spirit is even better encapsulated by Training a Parrot, an early-20th-century painting by the Japanese artist Chiyoji Yazaki that hangs on the living-room wall in the home of Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a retired professor who lives a quiet existence of books and seemingly little human contact.

Early in the film, Takashi’s solitary routine is interrupted by the arrival of Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a Tokyo undergraduate who moonlights as a high-end call girl. In the painting, a young woman in a kimono is seen teaching an attentive parrot to speak—or perhaps, as Akiko observes, it is the bird who is teaching the woman. Then, in a single elegant shot, Kiarostami frames Akiko in the foreground with the painting directly behind, her pose and manner uncannily duplicating that of the woman on the canvas, as if this century-old work were in fact her own portrait. Which, in Kiarostami’s world, could well be the case.

Like Someone in Love is the second fiction film Kiarostami has directed outside of his native Iran, and like his first, the Tuscan road movie Certified Copy, it dwells in the Pirandellian space between art and life, reality and role-playing, deploying its elegant narrative doublings and self-reflections with the deceptive ease of Ella Fitzgerald crooning the title tune. In Certified, Kiarostami gave us another couple (played by Juliette Binoche and the British opera star William Shimell) who, at various points in the film, seemed to be two strangers meeting for the first time, spouses on the verge of a breakup, and actors pantomiming the various stages in the evolution of a relationship.

Similarly, nothing in Like Someone in Love is quite as it first appears. Twice, Takashi is mistaken for Akiko’s grandfather, first by her jealous fiancé, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), and later by a nosy neighbor who, but for a few twists of fate, might have ended up as Takashi’s wife. That neighbor even comments on Akiko’s resemblance to her “mother”—Takashi’s daughter—who, like Takashi’s wife, is conspicuous by her absence. Also missing is Akiko’s own grandmother, who has journeyed to Tokyo for the day in the hopes of seeing her, but whom Akiko avoids, partly out of shame over her unusual work-study job.

And so, without ever laying all of its cards on the table, Like Someone in Love takes on the feeling of a fated encounter between two people who evoke in each other the ghosts of their respective pasts and the possibility of new beginnings. (In addition to Kiarostami’s own work, there are strong echoes of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterful Red, in which the meeting of an elderly judge and a young fashion model carried with it the suggestion of an eternal return.) Over the course of the film’s one evening and the following day, they cycle through various guises, each filling some mysterious void in the other, before the outside world intrudes, and the spell is broken. It may be a story with special resonance for the disarming Okuno, a veteran stage and movie bit player who, now in his early eighties, is playing his first leading role in a film. He seems particularly attuned to Kiarostami’s suggestion that there is no age limit on seduction.

“I make one film as a filmmaker, but the audience, based on that film, makes 100 movies in their minds,” Kiarostami once told me in an interview.

“This is what I strive for,” he continued. “Sometimes, when my audiences tell me about the mental movies they have made based on my movie, I am surprised, and I become the audience for their movies as they are describing them to me.” Like Someone in Love is a film made wholly in this spirit. It adheres to an emotional rather than narrative logic—and if few would rush to compare Kiarostami to more overtly “dreamlike” directors such as David Lynch or the late Raul Ruiz, he is every bit their equal in his fluid, freely associative sense of cinema.

You emerge from Like Someone in Love elated and slightly dazed, not least because of Kiarostami’s decision to end the film with the most abrupt denouement since the final episode of The Sopranos. (One working title for the movie was none other than The End.) But the movie’s sense of immutable desire resonates well after the lights have come up, as we continue to wonder whether the woman has been teaching the parrot or vice-versa, and if we have been witness to a love story or merely something like it.

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Kiarostami in Exile for Like Someone in Love

Abbas Kiarostami is preoccupied with my tape recorder. He wonders if it’s too far away from where he’s sitting. He makes his translator switch from one side of him to another so that the recorder is between them. After a while, clearly still anxious about it, he picks it up and sets it down on a side table directly next to him. I can’t tell if he’s really worried about my sound, or if he’s obliquely commandeering our conversation. “Where should I go?” I ask, half seriously. “Wherever you want,” he says.

Then, without prompting—”something personal I can tell you”—he relates this to his way of making films. The idea, he says, signature dark glasses perched on a smooth, untilled face that suggests a younger and even handsomer James Caan (both are 72), is to create a situation in which everyone feels most natural, in which the recording device isn’t central but secondary to the emotions and interactions at play. “I leave much more freedom than you’d expect to actors,” he says. “I’m not going to be the one to give them instructions. I’ll just create the right conditions, the right atmosphere, and then let them live.”

The filmmaker is celebrated for his meticulously conceived shots and sequences—even after 40 years, every composition, every move of his camera is singular and provocative. In his new film, Like Someone in Love, about an unlikely love triangle between a call girl, her jealous boyfriend, and a retired professor, Kiarostami juices tension from a static shot of three people in a car, and pans around a one-bedroom apartment as if it were a previously undiscovered planet.

After spending his entire career in his native Iran, government crackdowns on speech—the likes of which led to the house arrest of Kiarostami’s former protégé Jafar Panahi—have effectively exiled him. These developments would seem potentially crippling for an artist whose work has been so rooted in his homeland, one whose elegant, unobtrusive style seemed so well paired with Iran’s spare, arid landscape in films like Through the Olive Trees, Where The Wind Will Carry Us, and Taste of Cherry, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Yet even when he still made films in Iran, Kiarostami often struggled to get them approved for domestic distribution. That effectively made him a “filmmaker of the world” in terms of audience, if not necessarily intent. Now with his two most recent films—the Italian-set, French-English-Italian language Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche, and the Japanese language, Tokyo-set Like Someone in Love—he’s fully evolved into an auteurist globe-hopper.

Frequent flyer miles aside, Kiarostami insists that nothing substantial has changed about his art, which also tentacles out to poetry, photography, painting, and installations. “I consider cinema a universal language, and I consider human beings as universal beings,” he says. “So there’s no reason why people should not be able to relate to a film, or we shouldn’t be able to make films, in different languages and different cultures than our own.”

On first look, Certified Copy seemed like a major departure, vaulting the filmmaker from the world of Iranian strivers, hustlers, and townsfolk to a pair of strolling bourgeois Europeans role-playing about marriage. But the film is no less haunted by mortality, and no less preoccupied with our inherent unknowableness, than films like Taste of Cherry and Ten. He again mines existential humor and emotional violence from these themes in Like Someone in Love.

Though defiantly productive in the face of exile, Kiarostami isn’t deceiving himself about how he got here. “I can’t really say it was as a wish or a personal choice,” he says. “As a door gets closed, there’s no point in staying behind it.” That at least implicitly questions countrymen like Panahi, who remained in Iran—and made This Is Not a Film under house arrest. “I’d rather go on and open other doors. You hope for the best to happen, and go through new experiences that help you continue and improve. But I’ve not closed an open door just for the sake of seeing what’s elsewhere.”

But even if he doesn’t see his decision to flee as one freely made, he does see wisdom in being where he’s at—of taking himself to new places and finding new collaborators while remaining true to himself and his art. I bring up Andrei Tarkovksy, who made his final two masterpieces in Europe after being sidelined in post-thaw U.S.S.R. He counters with Woody Allen, a filmmaker “for whom nobody has closed any doors,” but who nevertheless has been reenergized by making movies overseas. “If you’re just repeating yourself in the same circles and the same cycle, there is the risk for you of becoming nothing but a technician, and to repeat yourself,” he says. “So you have the need to actually renew yourself. Changing your spot, your language and culture, can be the best way to do it.”

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Finding (Fake?) Love in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy

Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is exactly that: The Iranian modernist’s first feature to be shot in the West is a flawless riff on our indigenous art cinema. A romantic, sun-dappled Voyage to Italy with a Before Sunset structure and Marienbad backbeat, not to mention a suave acting exercise that would have been pure hell in the hands of David Mamet, Certified Copy is a rumination on authenticity using William Shimell (an opera singer by trade) as a foil for festival diva Juliette Binoche.

An English author (Shimell) arrives in a Tuscan village to promote his new book, titled (of course) Certified Copy. He wanted to call it Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy, he reveals, further playing to the crowd by answering his cell phone mid-talk. “There are no immutable truths in art,” he says. But what about life? After his self-satisfied presentation, the author acts on an invitation that is never exactly spelled out, and pays a call on a never-named woman (Binoche, who won the Best Actress Award at Cannes last year) seen sitting prominently in the audience. She operates a gallery stocked with antique replicas, and has bought six copies of his book—all to be duly certified with his signature.

Certified Copy, which was shown at last year’s New York Film Festival, is a movie of long takes and constant conversation (on the superiority of fake jewelry and the significance of Warhol’s Coke bottles, among other things). Once it gets going, it’s so fluid, it might easily be mistaken for facile. The movie is even pastiche Kiarostami in its headlong forward motion—first, as the couple drives through the glorious Tuscan countryside, and later, as they walk the medieval stone streets of the picture-book hill town Lucignano. Their relationship, mapped in a succession of close-ups, is hardly so direct: He’s aloof and testy, glumly miffed to be stuck with this bothersome French woman; she’s variously flirtatious, argumentative, and unaccountably reproachful.

When the pair stops for coffee, Shimell recounts a story regarding the inspiration for his book that, particularly in Binoche’s unexpectedly emotional response, strongly suggests some earlier acquaintance—“That sounds quite familiar,” she snaps, adding, “I wasn’t well then.” When he’s taken outside by a phone call (cell phones function as a comic deus ex machina throughout), the café proprietress strikes up a conversation with Binoche, assuming that Shimell is her husband. Binoche plays along, making up the story of their marriage even as the café owner imagines it; surprisingly, if somewhat begrudgingly, Shimell joins the game as well.

Everybody loves a lover. Lucignano, as it turns out, is a popular wedding destination—which provides this pseudo-married pair ample opportunity to interact with a varied succession of other couples, even as they bicker away the afternoon. Indeed, their worst domestic squabble occurs while an interminable wedding dance goes on outside the trattoria where they have sought refuge. Unafraid to be annoying, Binoche—who hilariously told interviewers at Cannes that, as directed by Kiarostami, she wasn’t actually acting but only being herself—holds the camera like a true star. Her nervous energy is the movie’s motor. She’s putting on an act; Shimell, appearing in his first movie, has only to react. He’s the exasperated responding to the exasperating.

When watching Certified Copy for the first time, it seemed as if the actors were role-playing their way into a shared fiction; when I saw it again, I was far more aware of the highly ambiguous hints regarding the existence of a prior relationship that Kiarostami carefully introduces throughout, along with the notion that a reproduction might be better than an original. (This is a movie in which mirrors abound.) Is their “marriage” a copy or the real thing? And what’s a performance, anyway?

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Close-Up

Dir. Abbas Kiarostami (1990).
The epitome of Kiarostami’s self-reflexive neo neo-realism (non-actors playing themselves in reconstructions of actual events), is this hall-of-mirrors portrait of an Iranian film fan who passes himself off as director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Authentic inauthenticity, it’s both a satire of celebrity culture and a triumph of willfully imperfect cinema.

Sat., Feb. 5, 5, 7 & 9 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 6, 5, 7 & 9 p.m., 2011

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Cannes Jury of One

CANNES, France—The jury has their awards, and I have mine. Sometimes they even coincide.

Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s modest Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives—the acme of no-budget, Buddhist-animist, faux-naïve magic realism—towered over a shockingly mediocre competition. (Distant runners-up were Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s overwritten but screenplay-winning Poetry.) Set, like many of Weerasethakul’s movies, mainly in the jungles of northeast Thailand and materializing late in the festival as a kind of soothing cinematic balm, Uncle Boonmee is a movie in which conversing with spirits and watching TV have much the same valence. The protagonist is dying of kidney failure; the ghost of his first wife and a red-eyed, human-size monkey, who is the manifestation of his long-lost son, arrive to guide him toward death, with several delightfully inexplicable digressions into past (and possibly future) incarnations.

Let the sound of one palm clapping herald the best movies not in competition: Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s ambitious murder mystery Aurora (inexplicably consigned to the “Un Certain Regard” section); his countryman Radu Muntean’s sensationally acted adultery drama Tuesday, After Christmas (also in the “Regard”); Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte, a wordless, but hardly silent, evocation of the Great Chain of Being (men, goats, trees) as manifest in rural Calabria, that was the shining light of the Directors’ Fortnight; and mainly Olivier Assayas’s five-and-a-half-hour docudrama Carlos, evidently removed from the competition because someone complained that it was produced for TV. Big mistake.

Carlos is more fun than Steven Soderbergh’s Che—to which it has been routinely compared with regard to length, historical period, and revolutionary protagonist (in this case, the eponymous Venezuelan-born terrorist Carlos the Jackal)—in part because it is considerably less conceptually rigorous. Its controlled, rock-fueled tumult evokes Assayas’s thrillers like demonlover and Boarding Gate. French critics, in particular, adored Carlos. Had it remained in the competition, it might well have won the Palme; indeed, the extended account of Carlos’s most elaborate operation, holding hostage a full conference of OPEC oil ministers, would make a terrific movie in its own right.

Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez is convincingly authoritative as the charismatic Carlos—putting a succession of pretty young actresses under “revolutionary discipline”—and Stalin, something like the Carlos of the Caucasus in his youth, makes an appearance in Nikita Mikhalkov’s (not even enjoyably) egregious World War II epic The Exodus: Burnt by the Sun 2. But the award for Best (Historical) Actor belongs to a dead Romanian dictator. A three-hour, unexplicated assemblage of official newsreels and occasional home movies, Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu earns its title by presenting Ceausescu’s image as he wanted to show himself, not only in Romania but on the world stage, cavorting with leaders ranging from Charles De Gaulle to Richard Nixon to Kim Jong-il. This film is a monument to delusion, a celluloid Potemkin Village, and a grotesque social psychodrama with mass deception and megalomania pushed past the absurd.

Ceausescu was the festival’s undisputed Ubu Roi, but I have to declare a tie for King of Cannes. Jean-Luc Godard’s last-minute decision to snub the festival (out of solidarity with Greece!) made his presence all the more tangible, especially as his dense, often visually ravishing, but only partially successful essay Film Socialisme ends with the words “NO COMMENT.” (Before the fest, Godard had condensed his movie into a four-and-a-half-minute YouTube preview.) On the other hand, the sight of 101-year-old Manoel de Oliveira vigorously strolling La Croisette with his ninetysomething missus was nearly as impressive as The Strange Case of Angelica, a serenely playful statement on mortality by a director who necessarily makes every film as if it were his last.

Cannes is more often about dashing expectations than exceeding them. Better-than-expected movies eligible for the La Quelle Sur-Prix include Mathieu Amalric’s likeably rowdy, backstage homage to striptease and pulchritude, Tournée (surprise winner of the international press’s FIPRESCI prize as well as a jury award for best direction) and, to a lesser degree, Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s highly crafted, overbearingly solemn rethinking of the Frankenstein story Tender Son. (By contrast, Doug Liman’s Fair Game and Ken Loach’s Route Irish fell below even my lowest expectations.) The undisputed Quelle Sur-Prix winner, however, was Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami’s first venture into European art cinema, shot in Tuscany with an international cast—basically of two. A tricky acting exercise that would have been a pure hell of sodden duplicity in the hands of David Mamet, Certified Copy proved remarkably adroit in developing a rumination on authenticity using non-actor William Shimell (an opera singer by trade) as a foil for festival diva Juliette Binoche, who hilariously told interviewers that, as directed by Kiarostami, she wasn’t actually acting but only being herself.

As welcome as those movies that exceed expectations are those that confound them. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is Cannes’ reigning baffler, Aurora and Le quattro volte are full of mysteries, and South Korean prankster Im Sangsoo sowed confusion with The Housemaid, remaking a ferociously tawdry and moralistic local classic as a parodic French art thriller. But this year’s Grand Whatzit belongs to American indie Lodge Kerrigan for his precisely opaque Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs). As inexplicable as it is enjoyable, Rebecca H. has all the earmarks of a failed project mash-up reclamation job, and shares several interests with Certified Copy—an acting exercise that climaxes with an extended real-or-Memorex simulation of Grace Slick lip-synching barely audible words during Jefferson Airplane’s Monterey Pop rendition of “Today” (To be any more than all I am would be a lie . . . ).

Finally, a friendly hoot of derision for the festival’s biggest Cannes Job: Hype plus scarcity equals a very hot ticket. Scheduled for a single Saturday-night screening in a relatively small theater, a low-budget head comedy calling itself Rubber drew a vast crowd waiting for hours largely in vain to see Quentin Dupieux’s self-reflexive account of a rogue automobile tire with telekinetic power. Feebly evoking elements of vintage midnight movies The Holy Mountain and Eraserhead, with the desultoriness of Repo Man, Rubber would have had difficulty attracting a midnight cult audience 30 years ago. Although the movie several times announced that it was made for “no fucking reason,” the hysteria around the screening, which turned away several hundred, was orchestrated with three subsequent market showings in mind.

jhoberman@villagevoice.com

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Close-Up: Iranian New Wave’s Seminal Creation

Although Abbas Kiarostami seems to be receding into a Godardian cave of late, this must-see 1990 artichoke—in many ways, the Iranian New Wave’s seminal creation—will never age out. Last decade, it seemed as if nobody made movies with such mundane majesty. Close-Up begins, though not for us, with a court case against Sabzian, an out-of-work Iranian man who, posing as controversial director-celebrity Mohsen Makhmalbaf, insinuates himself into an upper-class Tehrani family’s life under the pretense of using them in a film. He doesn’t, of course, but in a kind of proto-reality show sleight-of-hand, Kiarostami does—entire segments of Sabzian’s strange little history with the family are re-enacted for the camera, and we’re never clear on exactly how much of what we see is true and how much is fiction. The courtroom footage is authentically “real,” but that means little as the cameras become active meddling forces in Sabzian’s fate. The hall of mirrors is deep, but they all reflect, humanely, on both Sabzian and his prey’s intoxication with movie-world fame. Like nearly every other Kiarostami film, Close-Up takes questions about movies and makes them feel like questions of life and death.