The twenty best films of the decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Julien Allen on Like Someone in Love
Two immense filmmakers with one potent common denominator were taken from us this decade: Agnès Varda and Abbas Kiarostami. What they shared, beyond their humanity and inerrable command of cinematic language, was the concept of life as fiction. Fiction not in the sense of untruth—at least, not always—but in the sense of creation. Life as a creative act. Varda was never more explicit about this than in her final film, Varda by Agnès (2019), highlighting the creative inspiration she drew from almost everything and everyone she laid eyes upon: a gift which fueled her formidable artistic longevity. Kiarostami's films—like Varda’s—often purposely scrambled the lines between drama and documentary, but with him, the emergence of this fictive concept is more subtle. For his films, like most great artworks, are about us. And in order to speak to us, he leaves gaps in the work, which he entreats us to fill, from our own experiences, philosophies, and dreams. In other words, we must create in order to enjoy. In his penultimate feature film, Like Someone in Love (2012), two characters—the young student and sex worker Akiko (Rin Takanashi) and the old widower and teacher Takashi (Tadashi Okuno)—will create, from nothing, a bond: a relationship, which it will be hard to precisely define. And we the audience, with our own fears, desires, expectations, and demands, will create it with them.
Ozu used to say, “It is the films that watch us.” For Kiarostami, the work and its audience are one and the same: the artist expresses a vision and the audience captures and—by its plurality—multiplies it. Like Someone in Love fuses two different dimensions of this idea, each of which Kiarostami had incubated in the films that came before it. In 2010’s sublime Tuscan-set guessing game Certified Copy, the main characters are explicitly and confidently acting something out, but the audience is never quite allowed to be certain what it is; in his mordant 2008 experimental film Shirin, the audience is literally the film (or rather the film is literally the audience). In recapturing —by way of his Japanese sojourn—some of the poetic minimalism of his extraordinarily simple 1987 feature Where Is the Friend’s Home?, Kiarostami softened and corrected those previous films’ extremities. With Like Someone in Love, he takes a step upward, channeling the gentility and discretion of Japanese culture, eliding details of his peculiar love story not to entrap, confuse, or berate his audience, but to liberate them.
This film’s economy both defies belief and enshrines its elegiac nature. It consists of only six sequences. The introduction—a violently digital, Pinteresque nightmare in a seedy café where Akiko meets her pimp, featuring a static camera, a pointedly rare use of reverse shot, and half of a horrendous phone conversation—is virtuosic, but the second sequence truly belongs in an anthology of the decade: Akiko, sent by her pimp on a cab ride through Tokyo to an unnamed client, listens to a backlog of voicemails on her phone from her elderly grandmother who is visiting from the provinces and would dearly love to see her before she flies back home. As the cab glides through the city, she listens carefully to the prosaic messages, none of which alone constitutes an abuse of sentimentality, but when heard in sequence they trigger a slowly escalating eruption of guilt and regret. While so many things remain unsaid, we still discover everything we need to know about Akiko’s plight from these two opening scenes. As she learns that the grandmother is waiting—for a final hour before her flight—beneath a statue in the square, Akiko asks the driver to take a detour just so she can see her. Having spotted her grandmother, as we do—a forlorn, distant and faceless figure—she asks him to go around again. The connective strength and universality of the emotions exhibited here, despite their transposition to such a specific context, are staggering.
When she arrives at her client’s apartment, the initial small talk, to Akiko’s surprise, never stops; rather, it intensifies. She enjoys and is distracted by the elderly Takashi’s kindly manner, but when she tries to discipline herself to get down to business, she discovers that her client is not interested in sex. Why did he ask her here? What does he want with her—just company? If he is entirely innocent, why does he not share this desire with her (and how does he know her pimp so well)? After a while, we must ask: what does she want from him? There are myriad answers to all these questions, almost all of which would make sense, but few of which sit comfortably together and none of which can be set in stone. It’s like a picture book with minimal explanatory text; like one that a child might remember forever, having imprinted its own unsullied interpretation onto them. As adults, we might be more apt to change our minds about what we are seeing. What follows, as we meet Akiko’s possessive, suspicious boyfriend (Ryô Kase), is an adventure without a fixed goal. One in which discovery—of oneself—is both the catalyst and the ultimate purpose. There are pockets of tragedy everywhere in Like Someone in Love, countered by Takashi’s wisdom and by our empathetic elation at being given the chance—the obligation—to explore them so profoundly.
Kiarostami is not an angry filmmaker; he is not even a very emotional one (he once told a French journalist he had never once cried in the cinema). He is, like Takashi, serene. He would not conceive of using his work as a form of activism. The irony of his ostracization by the authorities in his home country of Iran—an irony so profound that it would be amusing if the circumstances were not so deplorable—is that neither he nor his films ever attacked the Iranian government, its ideology, nor the enforced lifestyle of its inhabitants. In an echo of (fellow painter) Eisenstein’s artistic dilemma, Kiarostami’s austere, limpid life stories were banned because they were so artfully and subtly presented, and by trusting the audience’s imagination they left so much unexplained, that the authorities did not understand them. So, they reasoned, they must be subversive.
Kiarostami’s subversion exists only in his imperceptible avoidance of the predictable and mundane. A powerful cinematic paradox one associates with Kiarostami is the way he films people who are perpetually on the move, yet through the tumult of their lives, are practically oblivious to their surroundings. By contrast to a Terrence Malick or a Kelly Reichardt, who film their subjects in communion with their environment, Kiarostami’s characters pay no more attention to where they are when they interact than we do to the cinema seat from which we are watching them. As an audience we can be entranced by what we are shown of the Kiarostami landscape: depending on the camera’s vantage point, we might see a little (Ten) or a lot (Certified Copy), but what we do see of the exteriors, even if it is often from their point of view, is purely to help us situate and understand the characters, not for the characters themselves to appreciate.
Kiarostami, like Bergman, films interiority, such that for his characters, the outside world no longer really exists; a conceit which, when transposed to Japan, carries distinct echoes of Marguerite Duras’s iconic complaint: “You saw nothing at Hiroshima,” from Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959). By way of physically accentuating this interiority, Like Someone In Love reacquaints Kiarostami with his most distinctive location—the interior of a car—this anechoic chamber from which he stages a series of infinitely simple but devastating dramatic sequences (the manifold phone messages from Akiko’s grandmother; Takashi being mistaken for Akiko’s grandfather; Akiko’s boyfriend confronting her with a sex worker’s flier bearing her image). What we see of Tokyo is principally confined to the reflections on—or the view from—the windows of a taxicab; what we hear of it—“This city is merciless, dangerous too”—disavows any sense of travelogue or homage. The “interior” conceit is even more pronounced toward the film’s end, when a lacerating monologue from Takashi’s elderly neighbor (about her regret at Takashi not having been interested in her) is delivered to Akiko through a small aperture in her front door, such that she momentarily appears trapped in what looks like a tiny space beyond.
Akiko is often still and silent in Like Someone in Love, whether in the back of the cab, on a step, sleeping. The one time she truly acts, persevering with her half-hearted seduction routine for the old man, she is out of shot (we see only his confusion). She is twice compared to pictures: to the portrait of a geisha in Takashi’s apartment and to the escort flier upon which she is dressed as a schoolgirl. The static picture book texture of the overall piece is such that rather than being struck by a feeling of time passing, these characters (one of whom has her whole life ahead of her, the other having little time left) seem captured in the moment. Thanks to the sheer weight of significance that Kiarostami extracts from their story, we sense instead their parabolic importance and, thus, their immortality. This curious sensation confronts us with a vital dichotomy of great visual art, which is its ability to freeze time. So often, narrative films that tell a story to a passive audience feel compelled to continue it, or hint at its continuation: to announce at their conclusion, either through implication, visual montage, or written intertitles, the fate of their protagonists. To do so here would have been not only to obliterate the luminous mystery inherent in the scenario but also to work against the film’s fabular, picture-book context.
We might often speculate, during Like Someone in Love, of a future for Akiko, but what resonates most strongly is her story as we see it, and what she represents to us about youth, womanhood, and the dubious prospects of today’s generation. Kiarostami harnesses this immobilizing quality to reinforce the film’s emotional impact. For us, Akiko will always be young and pretty, while her grandmother and the neighbor will always be old and regretful. The injustice of these predicaments is redoubled by their immortalization. Takashi, by contrast, has been afforded the chance in his old age to pass on instruction and to be heard: to enjoy a purposeful affiliation with another, even if it puts him in danger. The two old women, despite their best efforts, will not. The humanism of Kiarostami explodes when he depicts these characters; characters who, for other filmmakers, would come and go, yet here have the capacity to remain etched on our consciousness for ever.
Kiarostami has often used lines from songs and poems in his titles. He seems attracted to the brevity and simplicity of verse and to uncomplicated expressions of love, in the same way as his films have always cloaked the complex in the simple. The gist of the lyrics of the Ella Fitzgerald song “Like Someone in Love” (originally interpreted by Dinah Shore in 1944’s Belle of the Yukon) is that the singer is palpably, transparently, in love, but cannot quite bring herself to admit it.
This change I feel puzzles me.
It's strange, a real mystery.
Maybe you see it.
If you do see it
What on earth can it be?
Once all the questions have been asked, it remains hard to deny what we are seeing: a connection that should never have occurred, but one with the potential to transform the lives of both the protagonists. A love story between Akiko and Takashi might at the outset have felt somewhat misplaced, improbable, or challenging to our expectations and sensibilities, but by the end—as Kiarostami permits us to believe—that’s just what it is. The film concludes with the couple in peril, awakening us to the challenges that lie in wait. But having taken us with him into the creation of their story, Kiarostami strips us of judgment and cynicism and relieves us of fear, leaving us only with sympathy and warmth.