Abbas Kiarostami is a master of structure as theme.
Take Certified Copy.
The central couple’s every interaction is informed by their past together, which we’re deprived of ever seeing; our perception of their past, and thus their relationship, is dictated almost exclusively by their conflicting and conflicted interpretations of their life together. Since they’re both intimately aware — almost too much so — of what they’re referring to, they largely avoid realism-jarring exposition dumps that filmmakers conventionally rely on as noticeably-artificial communication devices that clarify too much backstory.
Instead, these late-shards of their relationship we witness offer a present-day copy of what their relationship once was. Is it now a cheap imitation of the glorious original, or is every temporal iteration — or “copy” — of their relationship created equal, and their relationship — and all relationships? — can be understood only through a composite perspective that includes each copy?
This false binary, because the answer likely resides uncomfortably between these ever-shifting poles, is integral to their — and the movie’s — conversations about art, about the relative value of “originals” and “copies”. Thus, the narrative decision to hyper-focus on the latest “copy” of their relationship, using it alone as the canvass upon which we must deduce what came before, allows the structure and themes to procreate.
Assuming a relationship’s in a good place when the knot’s tied — which is, sadly, probably too much of an assumption, but let’s assume most couples at least start off thinking they want each other, because why else would they agree to wed? — it stands to reason that most couples strive to continue replicating their initial joy.
But if the present state of a relationship has become an unhappy copy, a forgery, of its past state, or perhaps every one of its past states, is a bad relationship’s value rooted only in how it reflects its positive source, the optimistic foundation of their relationship?
And though they return to the scenes of their earliest hopeful moments in Certified Copy — their wedding church, their honeymoon hotel, heck, they even reenact a version of their courtship, a new “copy” of the “original” — it’s impossible for them to live again in such innocent bliss, because the conscious baggage of their past keeps getting in the way.
Which means the movie’s structure also doubles for how we exist in relationships. In a traditional movie, the camera acts as a omniscient lens without a perspective, ostensibly showing us what really happened. But since we can’t rewatch perfect reconstructions of our mutually-contested memories to resolve any discrepancies, the sort Certified Copy elides, we are — like we are in the movie — stuck in the present, without anyone nor anything to certify what was and thus what is.
As such, since our only window to the past is through the present, the present becomes a filter that alters our perception of the past, and our perception of the past alters our perception of the present. Thus, our engagement with art structured like Certified Copy mirrors — or, is a certified copy of (“certified” by “expert” filmmakers, a shaky certification to be sure) — how we engage with our lives. We can understand what was only through what is, even though what is is a direct result of what was.
So like the main dude’s point regarding how copies of art can help us better understand the original piece of art, any conception of a relationship must contend with every one of its iterations and derivations, from first meeting to final goodbye. And since that’s a virtually impossible task, well, then I guess we’re doomed to live, pleasurably and painfully, in our illusions. And what is Certified Copy, and every movie, but an illusion, a fabricated copy of life and reality?