Abbas Kiarostami is a great filmmaker of possible worlds within categorical realities. He usually creates out of real environments a baroque complexity, whilst eschewing baroque imagery in which to situate the forking paths that his narratives contain in relation to the viewer's perspective. In Close Up, The Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami offers perspectives within perspectives, without allowing us the certitude of knowing exactly what the reasons and motives behind a character's actions happen to be, and consequently turns the film back on the viewer: he creates an interpretative hall of mirrors as he frees us from determinacy.
In The Taste of Cherry the central character asks various strangers to help bury him after he will choose to kill himself in an open grave, but we never know whether he does so, and so we don't know if those who have refused or have offered to help, have persuaded him to go through with the deed or dissuaded him. We can re-watch the film and be none the wiser to the likelihood of whether he will die or not, because Kiarostami has set the problem up so ambiguously that categorical responses are irrelevant: any certitude or recognition will say more about ourselves than the film we are watching. This is film as Heisenberg: and Laura Mulvey in Sight and Sound and Fergus Daly in Film West have both talked of Kiarostami's uncertainly principle. In Close Up, a working class Iranian who looks like Mohsen Makhmalbaf passes himself off as the great Iranian director, but claims he does so not necessarily for reasons of exploitation and extortion (as he befriends a bourgeois Iranian family masquerading as the director, and promising them work in his film) but more especially as a means of being closer to art: he is a great admirer of Makhmalbaf's work. Kiarostami films the story as half documentary; half fictional reenactment as the people play themselves. Where the central figure in life gets arrested for pretending to be Makhmalbaf, in the film he becomes legitimately Makhmalbaf by playing him, while also at the same time playing himself. The family also gets to be involved legitimately in art as they play themselves as the duped family. The film finds a liminal place between documentary and fiction as the people become characters playing themselves whilst also, in the central figure's case, becoming the somebody else he wanted to become.
The Wind Will Carry Us follows a group of media people going to a small village in Iran to film what exactly? This is part of Kiarostami's guessing game, as he keeps from us the actual reason they are there, and instead concentrates chiefly on what comes out of the interactions with those from the village. By making the motive less concrete than the situations the characters encounter, Kiarostami illustrates wonderfully the idea that you can judge a man's character by the way he treats people who have no impact on his destiny as he withholds the very things many films will make central: the specificity of the goal. In films where the goal is paramount, the manner in which one treats those who have no impact on us is pragmatic. This doesn't mean they will be treated badly, but they will be treated only as well as the goal allows. By denying the clarity of the goal, Kiarostami creates space for meditation on the nature of the characters' actions: is it fair, exploitative, justifiable etc. within the situation itself, and not through wider aims?
In each film, Kiarostami works with various forms of indeterminacy. Will the central character kill himself at the end of The Taste of Cherry, and what would his apparent reason be, based on what we have seen, for doing or not doing so? In Close Up, Kiarostami records some of the film as what seems like documentary, but other moments, that can only be re-enacted, as fiction, but the line dissolves as it no longer becomes an issue of truth as validation, but a higher truth of aesthetic purpose. Finally the family don't care about the ruse they've been party to, because Kiarostami creates a superior ruse (a ruse for truth we might say) that is greater than the duplicity: everybody gets to share in the creation of art, not simply in being taken in by the young man posing as Makhmalbaf. In The Wind Will Carry Us, we wonder what the crew are doing in the village, and must muse over the possibilities.
In Copie Conforme, Kiarostami allows for a greater sense of the visually baroque, while still holding to what we'll call not his uncertainty principle - though this is equally valid - but his indeterminacy principle: his need to work with conditional realities. This puts the film into the same troublesome category as Last Year at Marienbad and In the Mood for Love: films about relationships where one can argue over the film at the most basic level of interpretation. When discussing Last Year at Marienbad writer Alain Robbe Grillet claimed that something happened this year at Marienbad, while director Alain Resnais insisted it was last year. Conceivably in relation to In the Mood for Love, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung could have argued at a press conferences over whether an affair had taken place or not; just as here Juliette Binoche could claim that she has been married to William Shimell's character for fifteen years, but Shimell could claim they had only just met when the films starts. And like in Resnais and Wong's films, Kiarostami has decided to find a visual correlative. Each film is predicated on the use of mirrored images to capture the indeterminacy of the encounter: the sense, reflecting the title and theme, that there are copies of copies of copies, and that 'true' feeling is not necessarily predicated on the truth of an event, but on its affective capacity. In the scene where Binoche drives Shimell out to a stunning Tuscan village, this is obviously a beautiful landscape that they pass through, but Kiarostami focuses not on in its visual beauty, but on its reflective indeterminacy. We see it mainly reflected in the glass of the car's windscreen, as we are caught between following the conversation and Kiarostami's image making. It allows for an ambiguity of response, a denotative need to follow their discussion, whilst also following the connotative desire to work with the imagery.
Yet far more than Resnais and Wong, Kiarostami contains, limits the connotative. This is if you like a distractive aesthetic, and Kiarostami like many great filmmakers has always been interested in distraction as aesthetic purpose: in suggesting there is always more to the story than the story being told. But usually Kiarostami does so through a naturalist rather than a baroque mise-en-scene. One might think of the can that rolls down the street in Close Up, or the shots of the Range Rover going up and down the hills on the outskirts of Tehran in The Taste of Cherry: the images are distractive but not baroque.
These are perhaps the two sides of the distractive image: the denotative and the connotative. There is the need to suggest that the film is part of a broader pro-filmic reality that must be acknowledged within the diegesis, and the sense that the film form can connote meaning through the intrusion of that form. In the denotative, as we're describing it, the distractive comes from a constant acceptance that film is a photographic recreation of reality: the world of which it is a part will interrupt and impact on the story. Kiarostami has talked in interviews of liking the long take: at a certain point he feels the reality of the event starts to intrude on the staging of the scene. "There are moments of surprise," he says in an interview in Film Ireland, "without prediction in long takes." It is this distractively denotative image that Gilbert Adair so admires when he wrote on Kiarostami in the Sunday Times (republished in Surfing the Zeitgeist) before the Iranian became well-known in the UK. Attacking The Piano, The Double Life of Veronique, Wild at Heartand others, Adair defends Kiarostami for the fact that unlike the other directors he doesn't bully the viewer into interpretation: basically into connotative meaning. He gives as an example a scene from And Life Goes On. In the film Kiarostami returned to the locale of his previous film, Where is My Friend's House, a period of time after an earthquake has devastated the region. In one scene an old woman is trying to drag a carpet from her house, and the central character declines to help claiming that "the carpet is too tightly wedged under rubble for the two of them alone to extricate it. The narrative continues on its way until, some ten minute later, while the focus of our attention is directed elsewhere, we observe, in a corner of the screen and out of the corner of an eye, that the old woman has after all succeeded, with unimaginable determination and labour, in dragging the carpet outside by herself." What Adair likes about the sequence is that it doesn't demand we see it as a symbolic moment of "human resilience in the face of adversity".
However rather than defending Kiarostami for his subtlety and, attack, say, Krzysztof Kieslowski for his ornateness, maybe it is enough to talk of denotation and connotation. In Three Colours Blue (aptly also starring Binoche), Kieslowski is searching out a strongly connotative aesthetic, with blue filters, amplified close-ups (the shot of the doctor reflected in Binoche's eye) and symbolic use of off screen space. For example we can compare the scene Adair describes, which puts an event into the background - the woman dragging out the rug - with Kieslowski turning the crash at the beginning of Three Colours: Blue into an off screen event. Instead of showing us the car crashing into the tree, Kieslowski shows a teenager playing a game where he tries to land a small ball onto the hole at the top of a stick. He manages it and just afterwards we hear the screeching of a car as he turns to look at what has happened, and the film cuts to the car slammed up against a tree. This is a connotative moment rather than a denotative one. It carries a portent that utilises off screen space to indicate chance in our lives. Here we have a teenager playing a game and who beats it as he finally manages to place the ball on the stick; while the cosmic game beats the family as the car crashes into the tree - the problem, leaky breaks. Kiarostami may also have a comment to make - indeed about human resilience in the face of adversity - but he backgrounds it rather than foregrounds it. In other words the image structure in Kiarostami's film is not built around the portent of theme, but almost gets lost in the denotative simplicity of the Iranian director's filmmaking. When Adair says that "the squeak of a door being opened in Kieslowski's Blue was as grating on the ear as would be the scraping of a piece of chalk across a blackboard", is it only the sound itself, or the significance given to that sound? Often connotative filmmakers give the sound and image a portent that forces us to read the image beyond its immediate presentation, and this is presumably partly what Adair means when he feels Jane Campion, David Lynch, Peter Greenaway and others bully the spectator into interpretive submission. This is hermeneutic bullying, where the form serves interpretive necessity - as if we're just not getting it if we try and take the film at face value.
One needn't get lost in harsh judgements here. Antonioni for example is surely a great connotative filmmaker, a director who will frame a shot well aware that the appropriate angle for telling the story has been eschewed as he searches out an abstract meaning within the image, evident in the characters often small within the frame against industrial and urban landscapes in, say, The Eclipse, The Red Desert and Zabriskie Point. Antonioni may respect found realities, may respect the place in which he films, but he also wants to absorb that space into a directorial perspective greater than the found realities, and utilises strong connotation to do so. Kiarostami's vision is generally more subdued, and while a few frames of an Antonioni film would reveal the directorial perspective, the same is not generally the case with Kiarostami. Sure, it looks like the film has been made by someone without a particular visual perspective. Yet as Adair would say, the visual perspective is absorbed into a subtlety of perspective, so that what is shown and not shown becomes the visual perspective, but it remains mainly denotative.
It is out of this denotation that Kiarostami in Copie Conforme nevertheless builds a film as indiscernible as Last Year at Marienbad and In The Mood for Love, indiscernible in the sense that he creates mutually compatible realities within the one film. Yet where Last Year at Marienbad creates a visually incoherent world to play up that indiscernibility, and In The Mood for Love offers a dreamy mise-en-scene to lose time in space, Copie Conforme almost, but not quite, gives the impression of realism. We'll return to the off-realism Kiarostami practises, and off-realism that is nevertheless consistent with realism and yet constantly questions it, but maybe it is useful to say a word about how Last Year in Marienbad offers up the indiscernible in a very different way. If we accept that Copie Conforme is a film about two people who may or may or not be a long established couple, just as in Last Year at Marienbad the couple may have met this year or last, depending on whose perspective one believes, then what is interesting is how Kiarostami turns inside out an aesthetics of indetermination.
In Last Year at Marienbad there is a scene where the man tries to convince the woman of what happened last year at the hotel. As he tells her the events he recalls, the film moves into his recollection, but without the certitude of screen space as he relates what happened. As he says that her and her husband were in adjoining rooms, and that at the time her husband was in the games room, so he says he went straight through to her room as the doors were ajar. However, after he offers this memory that would seem to be his own, and the film returns to the present and the discussion between the man and the woman, so she says she has no memory of the fireplace and the mirror, and he says what fireplace and mirror, though we have seen both in the memory of which we have been a witness. It is the most indiscernible of recollections as it seems to combine his reflection, her denial and also the possibility of false memory. Resnais reflects this in the form and not only in the mise-en-scene. He tracks into the woman sitting on the bed from one angle, and then cuts and moves in from another; as if pointing up different perspectives on the one event. By conventional screen grammar standards the cut would seem arbitrary - it is providing us with no ostensible new information. At the end of the 'memory' the woman screams, and Resnais cuts to various figures standing statue-like before returning to the 'present'. This is indiscernible cinema as formal experimentation and a dizzying example of space lost to time. The film is epistemologically infuriating as we get lost in the vagaries of time past.
In contrast, however, as critics have noted, a couple of viewers came out of Copie Conforme and one took it for granted that the couple hadn't known each other before, where the other person thought it clear that they had. The film didn't at all epistemologically infuriate; it simply led to very different readings that were not even interpretations. Each person saw the film differently. Such a response is possible because of Kiarostami's denotative simplicity, as opposed to Resnais' connotative complexity, but more than in any other Kiarostami film he tries to find almost a baroque realism in Copie Conforme: a paradoxical term, perhaps, but one that can help us get at its distinctiveness. Within this baroque realism the mise-en-scene does not become indeterminate: it retains its coordinates so that we know where we are because the space does not dissolve into the subjectivity of time. Kiarostami's Italian village exists in its own right and the characters pass through it with spatial confidence, with the sort of assuredness one would have if one were to go to the village oneself. It is not at all an oneiric world, and Kiarostami's baroque realism is consistent with the coordinates of screen space and not at all contradictory to it. His is not an oneiric ambiguity, but a realist acceptance of mise-en-scene and the manifold nature of event. In the early sequence where James (Shamell) talks about his book, Kiarostami decentres the speech by the use of off-screen sound, echoing, and of course the late arrival of Elle (Binoche), and then the appearance of her son. The dramatic centre does not hold as Kiarostami attends to the periphery: as he searches out the edge of the event and not only its centre.
Indeed vital to Kiarostami's ambiguity lies in his attending to the edge of events, without assuming that the edge becomes a metaphorical centre. When we talked of the moment in Blue, we mentioned that the on screen and off screen event become metaphorically interlinked: the focus on the game with the ball to the detriment of the skidding car asks us to interpret the image. Kiarostami's off-screen space instead somehow undermines the onscreen event rather than augments it. His use of off screen sound while James talks of the book he has written, gives the speech a centrifugal focus, a dispersive sense of other events taking place beyond the main one. This is obviously so when Elle arrives and later her son, but it isn't as if the interruption re-dramatises the focus either. For example, if in a mainstream film someone gives a speech and that speech is interrupted by a latecomer, then the film dramatically refocuses to take into account the interruption. The centrality of the speech becomes the centrality of the interruption, just as in most mainstream films an off screen sound becomes on screen event. If we hear a bump off screen in a horror film, we expect the action to be refocused on the new event as the apparently contingent becomes the dramatically refocused. In much of Kiarostami's work what interests him is the tension between the central event and the peripheral event, the dramatic focus of our attention, and the distractive focus of our attention.
Writing on Close-Up in The Material Ghost, Gilberto Perez mentions the scene with the aerosol can: "that rolling aerosol can may be taken as a witty epitome of the naturalistic approach. It may be seen to represent the detail of everyday life on which naturalism dwells: we thought we were in pursuit of a big story and we find ourselves watching the course of an insignificant can down a suburban street." But Perez also says, shortly before, "this is how naturalism leads to modernism: in the actual world we inhabit, where we can have no privileged access to what goes on, an ideal place from which to apprehend what takes place, we must acknowledge the means by which we actually manage our access, we must put in question the means our art employs for representing the world." In later Kieslowski, in Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, it is not naturalism that leads to modernism, but the baroque that leads to modernism as it bypasses the naturalistic altogether. The forking paths invoked by Deleuze in Cinema 2: The Time Image to talk of Resnais and other filmmakers need not however only be a baroque forking path. It needn't only be the sort of "quantum spaces in Robbe-Grillet, or probabilistic and topological spaces in Resnais", where there is a dizzying loss of perspective, where space gets lost to time, but to a naturalist puzzlement, where space entirely retains its coordinates.
In each instance, in Resnais and Wong Kar-Wai, and Kiarostami, we have of course what the great 17th century philosopher Leibniz would call the 'incompossible', where we have mutually incompatible worlds, but where the reality of these worlds collapse into parallel realities which destroy the coordinates of space in Last Year at Marienbad and In the Mood for Love, Kiarostami seeks amplitude in Copie Conforme and thus allows space to stand. We might say incompossibility and amplitude in film form are two sides of the Leibnizian coin, with the former an essentially oneiric notion or a narrative conceit, and the latter an ethical one. The incompossible allows for mutually compatible realities within the one film, but not realistically, and includes movies like Blind Chance, Sliding Doorsand any other film that creates parallel worlds, the sort of world where if one catches a train it leads to remaining in a duplicitous relationship; if one misses it, to catching your boyfriend in bed with another woman and embarking on a new love. This is narrative as conceit, and where Leibniz meets modern science. "That there exist parallel universes, exactly like our universe. These universes are all related to ours; indeed, they branch off from ours, and our universe is branched off of others. Within these parallel universes, our wars have had different outcomes than the ones we know." The worlds are made compossible by narrative bifurcation: by the idea that in one version of the story she finds the boyfriend in bed, in the other she catches the train. The worlds do not collide: they are optional realities. In especially Last Year at Marienbad and also In the Mood for Love, the worlds intermingle, as the mutually incompatible perspectives destroy the certitude of space.
When, in the Theodicy, Leibniz wants to defend the greater good, he says "for example, a general of an army will prefer a great victory with a slight wound to a condition without wound and without victory". Evil can be allowed because it contributes to a good that is greater than it. Now in a world that would be of greater rather than lesser evil, the wound would have been avoided but the battle not won. In the compossible worlds of Kieslowki and others, the battle can be both won and lost, the wound present and absent. In the incompossible worlds that interest Resnais, the battle would be both won and lost, the wound present and absent within the one world. The room in Last Year at Marienbad can have a mirror and a fireplace and not have a mirror and a fireplace. It is what makes the world oneiric.
However the compossible and the incompossible become in Kiarostami's film amplification of a certain Leibnizian kind, taking into account Deleuze's comments on Leibniz in The Fold. Here Deleuze notes, "...all Leibniz's morality is a morality of progress. For example, when I go to a nightclub, have I chosen the side where amplitude is maximal, the side where my region goes the furthest, even if I were unable to wait a second, with time enough to discover another means of direction that would have inclined me otherwise?" Deleuze adds, when talking of Adam, "does Adam's sin not correspond to a soul, too pressed or too lazy, that has not explored everything in its sub-division or its garden?" But what sort of amplification does Copie Conforme offer, and how does it differ from amplification in other Kiarostami films, like The Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us? By making the relationship incompossible, by making it neither necessarily the beginning or the end of the relationship, it becomes about the problems of both the beginning and the end of the relationship, as we choose almost which end it happens to be at. In the recent Blue Valentine, which shows the beginning and the end of the couple, there is no incompossible dimension: the beginning and the end do not become indiscernible as the director makes it clear that the characters are socially and physically transformed in the intervening years. We have no choice but to see the relationship beginning and ending narratively, and thus have no choice in our interpretation of it. In Copie Conforme central to the film's sense of amplitude is that we can work suggestively with our own reasoning faculties in working out the nature of the relationship: it is not a given.
As in The Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami wants to offer the space for amplitude as interpretive reasoning: he offers a sort of ethical hermeneutics. Writing on Kiarostami in Projections 8, Godfrey Cheshire notes that the director's films "seem unusually careless - free - on the question of audience. But perhaps that apparent lack of concern conceals a deeper sense of anxiety and responsibility on the same issue." Indiscernibility is the mode of this careless concern. Careless in the sense that meaning is not given; concerned in the sense that Kiarostami does not believe he can offer such certitude of meaning. As Kiarostami says in Film Ireland when the interviewer invokes Deleuze and the impossibility of understanding the totality of the scene, "All that filmmakers basically do is photograph character for one moment. But the reality of doing it is like medically: even if you do a completely medical examination of a person, like an endoscopy, a test or whatever, you still can't have a reality of that person." This releases the freedom of perspective that is achieved through the ambiguity of indiscernibility: one comes away from Copie Conforme well capable of saying this is a new relationship; equally capable of saying that they are a well established couple. It releases not so much the interpretation, but the assumption - the hermeneutic takes place on a level below active interpretation. It isn't a reading but a perspective, rather as one comes out of The Taste of Cherry: where if we assume the central character has taken his own life or not reveals an aspect of whether we find our own life worth living or not, and on what grounds. The films don't beg interpretation; they release it. When the couple we mentioned earlier came out of Copie Conforme they didn't interpret the film differently; they saw it differently. Just as in The Wind Will Carry Us, we may judge the importance of the leading character's behaviour in relation to an event that we must guess at, so we will reveal a lot about our sense of ethical sensibility in judging the character's behaviour against the event that is kept from us. If we decide that the event is of significance we might insist that the end justifies the means as the character often acts in a self-centred manner; if we do not then we may concern ourselves far more with the behaviour to hand. Kiarostami creates the space not so much for interpretation but amplitude where the soul is not pressed and lazily forced to make decisions. When Jonathan Rosenbaum dismissively said in an essay on Lancelot du Lac in Movies as Politics that attending to the meaning over the form in Robert Bresson's films is a bit like the viewer taking their own pulse, Kiarostami might reply that is exactly what he wants: he insists, but very gently, that the viewer takes their own ethical, social and ontological pulse in viewing his work.
Partly what makes Kiarostami so important and fascinating a filmmaker lies in Serge Daney's comment: "By what strange alchemy can an Iranian working alone rediscover and advance Rossellini?" It is a question the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy picks up when looking at how Kiarostami simultaneously eschews and resolves certain key problems in film. If as Laurent Kretzchmar notes, summarizing Nancy's book on Kiarostami, "classic cinema dealt with a pre-interpreted world and aimed at organising every element of a movie toward a particular meaning...modern cinema confronts a world that can no longer be understood, and aims at representing the loss of this meaning..." Kiarostami is a filmmaker who rescues cinema from, to borrow Dorothea Olkowski's term, and the title of her book, "the ruin of representation" - from the loss of the representational, without at all returning it to the comfort zone of representational assurance. This is what is so fascinating about two people coming out of Copie Conforme and assuming they know what the relationship was only to find their companion assuming the opposite. Representation is simultaneously assured and problematised.
Earlier, we mentioned that Copie Conforme is Kiarostami's most baroque film, the one most interested in reflections, in creating mirror effects on the glass as Shimell and Binoche drive to the village, and also when they are in the museum. Yet perhaps it is better to say this is the inevitability of ambiguity over the representational possibilities in the baroque, and allows us to understand why Nancy and Daney could see Kiarostami escaping the visual problematic of the great filmmakers of the sixties who forced upon the viewer the ruination of the representative. Whether it was Bergman destroying the negative of the film we were watching in Persona, Resnais dissolving the story into memory in Last Year at Marienbad, Fellini creating the oneiric in 8 frac12; as Marcello Mastroianni seems to be dreaming his film more than making it, or Buuel adopting non-sequiturs and digressions in Belle de Jour, the directors were creating categorical interpretive complexity out of the loss of certitude. Kiarostami returns us to the certitude without losing the ambiguity, and this is where James's comments are of especial interest at the beginning of the film when he talks of his book concerning copies, when Elle and James talk in the car together, and again when Elle mentions a famous painting that was for many years assumed to be an original but turned out to be a copy. Many filmmakers would have focused the problem of the copy by relying on the baroque: by visually and narratively creating complexity of perception and complexity of meaning. Kiarostami searches out simplicity of perception and meaning, as if pragmatically shrugging his shoulders and saying what problem for perception and meaning. The perceptual and epistemological problem lies not in the material, but in the perception of the material, so that if the viewer has no problem with their assumption, the film will create no problem of interpretation. The problem may lie in another's response being utterly different from one's own, but this is not an a priori problem the film creates, but a problem of different assumptions offered by the viewer.
When in an unpublished article Dimitri Tomaras says of Copie Conforme that "facts and time are experienced internally, while external process is purposive only when experienced as an internal process", he is getting at the simplicity of Kiarostami's style, allied to the complexity of the viewer's response. In much of the great cinema of the sixties, the external process forced upon us an internal process, but with a complexity of form, not the simplicity of it. As Godfrey Cheshire says in Projections 8, "Why does the man [in The Taste of Cherry] want to kill himself?...Why does anyone? Why would we, the individual audience member; or Kiarostami? The film, in refusing to spell out [central character] Badii's reasons, thrusts the essential problem back at the spectator, something few current Western art films are bold enough to do." In such an instance the question is laid bare; the form does not hide the question, so that we search through the form for the meaning, but instead comes through the nakedness of the form. An overly baroque style would, in Kiarostami's aesthetic, hide the question, taking into account Cheshire's comments.
To conclude it might be fair to ask what is the question that Copie Conforme wants to ask, and we can propose it is twofold? Firstly, it is the problem of copying, and secondly the problem of loving, and how they are intertwined. For these are surely the subjects of the film: the issue of deciding whether we should make such a case for originality in art, and how we should take a relationship that could be thoroughly established or not even begun. Can we be cheated as many people were concerning a famous painting the couple here discuss in the gallery, a painting that for many years was believed to be an original but turned out to be a copy? Cheated in the sense that we take what is for what is not, and what is not for what is. If the couple are a couple we may have been fooled into believing they were not; and if they are not have we been fooled into thinking they are? But though Dimtris Tomasini usefully invokes Welles' F for Fake when writing on Kiarostami's film, and indeed Deleuze fits Welles' film into a similar problematic to Resnais', perhaps the major difference between Welles' film and Kiarostami's is that where Welles searches out the epistemological problem of knowing, Kiarostami wants instead to explore the affective aspect of seeking knowledge. In other words, Welles wants us to get lost in the dizzying perspective on a master forger, someone who makes his living from producing fake paintings, while Kiarostami wants us to see that whether it is the original or the copy is irrelevant to an affective ethos, to a perceptual faculty that wants to feel rather than know. When James talks in the car of the irrelevance of whether something is an original or copy, it is irrelevant from a certain point of view, even if it proves relevant from another. From what we will call an economic/epistemological point of view the question of the originality of a work matters, but from an affective point of view it does not. The people who for many year responded to the painting believing it was an original had exactly the same affective response; it is only the people now who are aware that it is a fake who will not be having that affective dimension: the affective sense of awe confronting a master's original. This diluted response, then, rests not in an innate quality in the painting, but in the epistemological reappraisal that takes place which denies the viewer the chance see it as original, knowing that it is not. By the same token, can someone say that in love the affective dimension is not altered by the retrospective awareness that the person was not who they at first thought they were? They might say afterwards, they should have known, but the point was that they didn't - they affectively surrendered to the person, as one surrenders affectively to the work of art that one assumes to be original unless told otherwise.
In the relationship in Copie Conforme this is interestingly played out by us neither knowing whether it is taking place as affective ignorance or affective awareness. If we mention again Blue Valentine, we notice that this problem is irrelevant because the film wants to make categorical the two temporal planes: the initial feelings of love and the later feelings of irritation, frustration and desperation. The question of the projective and the realistic are not indiscernible, but clearly actualised. By flashing back and forward between the past and the present, the burgeoning affection and the later waning of feeling, the film clearly locates us in its affective world.
This is what Kiarostami resists, and yet at the same time this question of the real and the copy has always interested him in relation to the pro-filmic, in the world filmed, and partly why we believe that though Kiarostami is interested in indiscernibility, he eschews the baroque collapse of categorical worlds. The filmed space fascinates Kiarostami, and he wants it as a truth that somehow refuses the possibility of the fake. In this sense he is very consistent with the neo-realists, and scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini's claim in an essay, 'Some Ideas on the Cinema', that "now it has been perceived reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist's task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect...on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are." Now taking into account Nancy's and Kretzchzmar's comments earlier, and allying them to what Zavattini says here, we could say that where classic Hollywood worked off metaphorical certitude, the sixties art film wanted to create metaphorical irresoluteness. If Hollywood wanted to make meaning singularly metaphorical, the art film wanted to search out the metaphorically troublesome. When David Bordwell in Narration in The Fiction Film insists that we should in the art film read for maximum ambiguity, where "the world' laws may not be knowable, personal psychology may be indeterminate", we might then wonder how does this differ from Kiarostami's notion of the ambiguous.
Brigitte Peucker in her book The Material Image mentions "Gombrich's contention that metaphors - especially synthetic metaphors - should perhaps also be read as "indicators of linkages not yet broken" rather than as promoting the transfer of established meanings." However, Zavattini is using metaphor in classic Hollywood as established meaning, but where the European auteur wanted to work with broken linkages, metaphors that did not readily signify, the neo-realists wanted to ignore the metaphor for the real: for the pro-filmic and the simple story of events that could happen to anybody: the loss of a bike in Bicycle Thieves, of one's home in Umberto D. Even the potentially melodramatic - like the boy poisoning his father in Germany Year Zero - was contained by the horribly prosaic problem of hunger and having too many mouths to feed. If in Hollywood the metaphors manifested themselves in genres of feeling, exemplified in Hitchcock's comment, quoted in The Material Image, that "Someday we won't have to make a movie, we'll just attach them [the viewers] to electrodes and play various emotions for them to experience." Here the real world is utterly irrelevant, as if Hitchcock only required metaphorical situations to carry the feelings he laboriously had to set up to generate the emotions he wanted to incite. Obviously his comment is facetious - but it is one no neo-realist would be likely to make. It was indeed a comment like Hitchcock's that many of the sixties filmmakers wanted to counter. If the metaphors - as Zavattini defines them - would be the anti-realistic modes of manipulation Hollywood practised, then the sixties filmmakers wanted to work with modes of anti-manipulation through using metaphors that could not readily signify. It is precisely what Kretzchmar is getting at when he talks of the representational loss of meaning in the sixties auteurs.
This returns us to the issue of copying, and how for Kiarostami it is not finally a problem, because he isn't interested in the manipulative connotation as metaphor Zavattini sees in Hollywood films, nor the radical overturning of this metaphor by ambiguous connotation so practised by the great auteurs of the sixties. He instead wants the pro-filmic dimension of the neo-realists, meeting the ambiguities of the great auteurs, by proposing that life contains the ambiguous, not necessarily the metaphorical, and extends this into the area of the ambiguities of love. This is an aesthetics of partial but concentrated observation, the sort Fergus Daly comments on when seeing in Kiarostami "the classical notion of the seer", and tells an anecdote of Kiarostami spending four hours at "an airport passenger lounge simply observing the Farsi poet Mehdi Akhavan Salesse". What Kiarostami wants us to do in relation to reality, and in this instance the relationship between James and Elle, is to comprehend more than interpret it, rather as we might when we decide to concentrate on watching a couple in a cafe and trying to guess from their body language how far into the affair they happen to be. In Copie Conforme's case are they trying to resurrect feeling by returning to the initial stages of their relationship, or are they two people unavoidably following certain patterns because of their own issues that they bring into a possibly burgeoning intimate situation? This is the ambiguity of the inevitably partial view, and how many times could we ourselves frame life to bring out its subtle ambivalences instead of focusing on its certitudes? All we need to do is observe closely in any caf or restaurant, to walk along the street, to listen to a casual conversation at the bus stop, and we will find the natural aporias Kiarostami seeks out. The director's genius is in knowing exactly how to frame these gaps in meaning.
In a passage from a collection of the The Essential Rumi, the translator Coleman Barks comments on one of the 13th century Persian poet's poems called 'Rough Metaphors', saying "some of Rumi's metaphors are rough, raw, and unacceptable to refined tastes," but adds, "Rumi uses anything human beings do, no matter how scandalous or cruel or silly, as a lens to examine soul growth." Kiarostami is interested in rough reality rather than rough metaphors, but for the same ends: the inevitable invisibility and ambiguity of 'soul growth', of modes of amplification. What is so surprising to many critics is that he has achieved it without the complex metaphors the great auteurs felt necessary to examine ontological questions, questions of being. Indeed one Iranian critic compared Kiarostami to Rumi, saying that Rumi, "made the complexity of philosophy easily comprehensible and who showed us in a simple manner what life is." Kiarostami's films might not be so simple, but they do search out soul growth without over reliance on connotative association; and therein lies perhaps, his inexplicable complexity, his fascination with amplitude over the incompossibly complex.
© Tony McKibbin