In Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961), Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) are polite to each other—even kind. But the heart of their marriage is gone. Lidia in her bath asks Giovanni to get her a towel. She hopes to inspire desire, but after giving her the towel he walks away.
In Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), James Miller (William Shimell) and his wife Elle (Juliette Binoche) are in a marriage also drained of love. In a restaurant Elle puts on lipstick and earrings in the hope of getting James interested in her but to no avail.
There are many other similarities in the two films. Both stories take place in Italy. Giovanni and James are both successful writers and members of the intelligentsia. Early on, each man goes to an event celebrating the publication of his latest book. They are all in middle age. Giovanni and James are strikingly handsome and Lidia and Elle are beautiful. Their actions are desultory as they all go from one event to the next without enthusiasm or purpose. They are bored and unhappy.
Both films grapple with difficult questions about love. Why is true love—in which a man and a woman adore each other—so difficult to find? And why does it so often not last?
James and Elle, fresh from a wedding party:
James: I didn’t mean to sound cynical. It’s just that I looked in their faces and I saw the hopes and dreams in their eyes. I just couldn’t bring myself to support their illusion.
Elle: A sweet illusion.
James: It might be sweet but it won’t last long. And the sweeter it is at the start the more bitter the taste of reality later. We both went through this.
Elle: It sounds sad.
James: Oh no it’s not sad. It’s just the way it is. I wish I could tell that couple not to cling to the branches of that absurd marriage vow or to their promises. The only thing that will keep their marriage alive is care. Care and awareness.
Elle: Awareness of what?
James: That things change. Everything changes, and promises won’t stop that. You don’t expect a tree to promise to keep its blossom after spring is over, because blossom turns to fruit. And then . . . then the tree loses its fruit.
Elle: And then?
James: And then . . . the garden of leaflessness.
Elle: Garden of leaflessness?
James: It’s a Persian poem. The garden of leaflessness . . . Who dares say that it isn’t beautiful?
She goes and sits by a fountain with a statue of a woman leaning against a man.
Elle: I like the way she rests her head on his shoulder.
James: I can’t believe you’re so sentimental.
Elle: I can’t believe you’re so irresponsible.
James: Irresponsible? Me? This guy has nothing to do but protect this woman!
Elle: That’s why he was immortalized.
James: Immortalized? You can’t be immortalized for that. It’s ridiculous!
Elle: Nonsense . . . . it’s because he protects her that he becomes immortal.
In the final scene they go back to the hotel where they were lovers fifteen years before.
Elle: You haven’t changed. You’re just like you were. Just as gentle, as attractive, as cold. I know it’s to protect yourself, but just as cold.
James: That’s not true.
Elle: What’s not true? Have I changed?
James: You? Yes. You’re even more beautiful.
Elle: And more stupid?
James: I never said that.
Elle: You see . . . if we were a bit more tolerant of each other’s weaknesses, we’d be less alone . . . don’t you think? I know one can live alone, but . . . . Stay. Stay. It’s better. Better for both of us. For you and for me. Give us that chance.
James: I told you . . . I must be at the station at nine.
Elle: I know. J J J J James . . .
James says nothing. He goes to the bathroom and looks into the mirror. He goes back to the bedroom while the camera stays on the church out the bathroom window as the bells ring and then stop ringing. The end.
Compare that with the final scene in La Notte:
2:20 to end
Lidia: I feel like dying because I no longer love you. That’s why I’m desperate. I wish I were old, my life’s dedication to you over. I wish I no longer existed, because I can’t love you. That’s the thought that came to me in the night club, when you were so bored.
Giovanni: But if this is true, if you feel like dying, it means you still love me.
Lidia: No. It’s only pity.
Giovanni: I never gave you anything. I was completely unaware. I go on wasting my life, like a fool, taking without giving, or giving too little. If you mean I haven’t much to give, you may be right. . . . I’ve been selfish. Now I realize that what we give others comes back to us. . . . Lidia, let’s finish this. Let’s try to hang on to something we’re sure of. I love you. I’m sure I’m still in love with you. What more can I say? Let’s go home.
Lidia takes out a letter from her purse and reads it to Giovanni: “When I awoke this morning you were still asleep. As I awoke I heard your gentle breathing. I saw your closed eyes, beneath wisps of stray hair, and I was deeply moved. I wanted to cry out, to wake you, but you slept so deeply, so soundly. In the half-light your skin glowed with life, so warm and sweet I wanted to kiss it, but I was afraid to wake you. I was afraid of you awake in my arms again. Instead I wanted something no one could take from me, mine alone, this eternal image of you. Beyond your face I saw a pure beautiful vision, showing us in the perspective of my whole life, all the years to come, even all the years past. That was the most miraculous thing: to feel, for the first time, that you had always been mine, that this night would go on forever, united with your warmth, your thought, your will. At that moment I realized how much I loved you, Lidia. I wept with the intensity of the emotion. For I felt that this must never end. We would remain like this all our lives, not only close but belonging to each other in a way that nothing could ever destroy—except the apathy of habit, the only threat. Then you wakened and, smiling, put your arms around me, kissed me, and I felt there was nothing to fear. We would always be as were at that moment, bound by stronger ties than time and habit.”
Giovanni: Who wrote that?
Lidia: You did.
Giovanni kisses her intensely many times and pulls her down onto the ground.
Lidia: No . . . no . . . I don’t love you any more. I don’t love you any more! You don’t love me, either. . . . Say it. Say it.
Giovanni: No. I won’t say it. I won’t say it.
The camera moves back and pans slowly to the left and we no longer see them. Music from the jazz quartet plays. The end.
Lots of similarities.
And yet La Notte is a great film and Certified Copy is a failure. True gold . . . false gold.
Even though each film moves at a languorous pace, La Notte is always fascinating while Certified Copy is tedious.
While La Notte takes us into a world filled with heart, Certified Copy gives us heartlessness. Elle—in contrast to Lidia—spends lots of time in petty complaint. James—in contrast to Giovanni—is aloof and condescending and sarcastic, at one point in a restaurant coldly barking out commands to the waiter. Giovanni and Lidia are sympathetic and engaging. James and Elle are off-putting and boring.
The thesis of James’s book—Forget the Original Just Get a Good Copy—is that copies are actually to be preferred to originals. And a certified copy is one that is known to be a copy but is nonetheless officially recognized and given praise because it is a great work in itself. One wonders if James is standing in for Kiarostami, who perhaps down deep knows he does not have the magic of Antonioni but somehow wants to convince himself and us too that his work—the copy—is actually better than that of Antonioni!
Kiarostami is trying to say something important about marriage but he has nothing to say except the obvious: Isn’t it too bad that these two people can’t get along. There are a number of ways this lack is camouflaged. Initially we think James and Elle do not know each other but gradually we realize that they know each other all too well and that their relationship began fifteen years earlier. Tricky. Also she has a 13-year-old son Julian (Adrian Moore) who mocks his mother and is generally an obnoxious brat. This is a fake distraction. Elle drives James out into the gorgeous Tuscan countryside—perhaps being immersed in this will prevent our realizing the emptiness of this film. But no. It doesn’t.
This is not a fluke for Kiarostami. Taste of Cherry (1997) tells the story of a man planning his suicide. Kiarostami manages to make this boring and pretentious and even ridiculous. In The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), an engineer from the city travels to a rural village because of a dying relative. He keeps getting in his jeep and driving to the top of a hill where cell reception is good enough to make phone calls. We never know to whom he is talking. Is it a metaphor for the difficulty of communicating meaningfully with anyone? Do we care?
This gets to the heart of the matter. Giovanni is a flawed character but we care about him. And we care about Lidia too. In fact we care about everyone in La Notte. Their close friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki), whom we see in the first scene as he lies in pain dying of cancer in a hospital. Valentina (Monica Vitti), the bored lost beautiful daughter of wealthy industrialist Gherardini (Vincenzo Corbella). Everyone!
There are many truly great films dealing with troubled marriages. For example: The Romantic Englishwoman (Joseph Losey), The Arrangement (Elia Kazan), Paris by Night (David Hare), Gabrielle (Patrice Chéreau), 10:30 P.M. Summer (Jules Dassin), Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard), Chinese Roulette (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick), Betrayal (David Jones).
La Notte is worthy of that list.
Certified Copy is just a copy . . . and not even a certified copy at that.
La Notte: A+
Certified Copy: F+
© Richard Hobby