I’ve meaning to write about these two movies, which I viewed on consecutive evenings, for weeks, but the post was OBE, as they say, overtaken by events. A new job, for one thing– one that may even incentivize me to become more prolific in my uneven film-blogging.
So what does a high-society comedy from the golden days of the Hollywood studio system share in common with a modern European film made by an Iranian director? More than you might think.
First things first. The Philadelphia Story is a movie so close to my heart, so embedded in my personal history, that it was a shock to realize while I was watching it that I hadn’t seen it in at least five years, likely longer. It was likely the first black-and-white comedy from the 1930s and 40s I had ever seen. A poster for the film hangs above my daughter’s bed, and the fact that she is named Katharine is not a coincidence.
I kept the poster in the divorce but lost the DVD, so it wasn’t until I allowed myself to buy the film recently as part of a TCM Hepburn collection did I take the opportunity to sit down and watch it again, perhaps with more discriminating eyes. It holds up splendidly, naturally, and it’s possible I picked up on some jokes that I might have missed before. (Cary Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven: “I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know, at one time I think I secretly wanted to be a writer.”)
The film shares several similarities with other comedies of the era, particularly in that the story involves divorces and remarriages (Grant occupied similar territory in The Awful Truth.), although antics are kept to a minimum in favor of barbed-wire conversation. But if you begin to think of marriage as a series of roles played by the principles, you’ll begin see Certified Copy as a bit of a kindred spirit, albeit one that may be visiting from an alternative universe.
For example, I’ve now viewed the film from different vantage points: unmarried, married and divorced. Just like Grant’s character, I’ve been through the looking-glass. Has that shaped the way I’ve seen the film each time? Possibly. Certainly one could take a more cynical stance, especially at the prospect of proven combustibles Grant and Hepburn reuniting on a whim. What are odds that will work? (See also, The Graduate. Or, for that matter, His Girl Friday, another entrant in my pantheon) Along that line of thought, James Stewart’s Macaulay Conner, who in a sense is the film’s protagonist, survives his brush with the upper classes with both his Midwestern values and his artistic aspirations intact; he hasn’t been grounded by the sure-to-be-demanding Tracy. He’s the winner, not the loser.
The film, of course, doesn’t encourage you to take that stance. But Certified Copy, directed by the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, investigates a darker space, although the setting (Tuscany) is no less radiant and privileged than the Main Line Philadelphia of bygone days.
The film too is about role-playing. A British author (William Shimell) seemingly (the key adverb in this film) visiting Italy on a lecture tour meets an attractive woman (Juliette Binoche) who runs an antique shop. They decide to take a strangely spontaneous drive to a small Tuscan town. There, they begin to bicker and argue, airing old grievances they aren’t supposed to have. A chance encounter has turned intimate (in the bad way) with unsettling speed.
That’s the plot, such as it is. The question that’s posed: Who are these people? Two strangers playing a game that slowly escalates beyond control? A long-time married couple reaching the end of the line? A man and his mistress? Adding to the confusion is a son, who may or may not be related the author.
The film is constructed so as to not provide a clear answer. Debates have raged on the web, with advocates for one position or another convinced they are right. However, I am confident that I could watch the film again and remain as unsure as ever. There is conflicting evidence. I have clung to my undoubtedly biased belief that the two are, indeed, a couple that have known each other for years and their behavior is a commentary (the director’s, not the players’) on how the closest of people can become strangers to each other—or perhaps more precisely, how, in a long-term dysfunctional pairing, lovers can toggle between an well-worn familiarity and a disaffected pose, which may or may not be their true self.
The truth about marriage is that you can detach yourself at will—handing over more of yourself to work, friends, sports, hobbies, other partners, God, what have you–, but you do so at your own peril. The minute you break away, like a swimmer pushing further and further from shore, the risk builds that you can never return.
It’s possible in a marriage, especially one that has been gliding on its own inertia for some time, to be an intimate and a stranger both, to be the C.K. Dexter Haven at both the beginning and the end of Philadelphia Story, or to take it one step further, for Tracy to view Macauley as both a known and unknown with the space of a single evening. The pool episode, which largely takes place off camera, that occurs before the conclusion, is an example of those two slipping into the roles of man and wife, just as Binoche and Shimell arguably do in the small Tuscan café in Certified Copy.
Some of have labeled the latter film science fiction, as something involving quantum mechanics and divergences in spacetime. That’s a very 21st century take. I think the film is a mystery—with a riddle at its heart as old as women and men. How can, more often than makes us comfortable, the ones closest to us become so unrecognizable?