Like a Movie
By David Ehrlich

Like Someone in Love
Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, France/Japan, Sundance Selects

Abbas Kiarostami is here to help. A titan of the Iranian New Wave and arguably modern cinema’s most provocatively self-reflexive auteur, Kiarostami understands that his narrative gamesmanship can be frustrating for viewers accustomed to movies with easy answers, but his films are so widely cherished in part because they encourage audience participation where lesser directors might simply punish casual spectatorship. In that light, it’s easy to appreciate the titles of Kiarostami’s films for their bluntly instructive nature. Certified Copy, for example, insistently returns the viewer’s attention to the subject of forgeries, even (and especially) during the film’s most romantic moments, while Through the Olive Trees explains precisely where to look during the movie’s pivotal and protracted final shot. Yet it’s Kiarostami’s newest film, Like Someone in Love, that might bear his most crucial and perfectly transparent title of all. An explicit nod to the immortal pop song composed by Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke (sung in the movie by Ella Fitzgerald), the eponymous phrase resounds through the film’s every expression and elusive gesture, until the thought occurs so organically that you don’t even notice it’s been gift-wrapped: have any of Abbas Kiarostami’s characters definitively been anything?

In the aftermath of Like Someone in Love’s dicey Cannes premiere, Kiarostami explained: “It’s better to say that we are like someone in love rather than asserting that we are in love. Death or birth are definitive; love is nothing but an illusion. We have in this film four people who are like some people in love.” By now, it seems obvious that the creatures who populate Kiarostami’s films are either impostors, observers, and/or “real people” who are blithely unaware that they’ve been hijacked by a pointedly ambiguous meta-construct of some kind—even when Kiarostami summons other filmmakers to appear as themselves (Close-up), they are transformed into agents of his careful deception, deployed to convince the viewer of a reality that Kiarostami is using their celebrity to further obscure.

His films are not unlike magic tricks, in that their deceit is dependent upon the audience being somewhat aware that—to paraphrase Errol Morris—believing is seeing, and not the other way around. For such a committed gamesman, Kiarostami’s films are imbued with a rare emotional lucidity, and yet they still steadfastly undermine the traditional dynamic of film acting, so that any outward show of emotion is first a representation of that emotion before it can be received as an expression of it. In this world, every tear (common) or smile (less so) is an invitation to consider its own inauthenticity—the most impenetrable characters are ultimately those who seem desperate for you to know them. When the frail professor at the center of Like Someone in Love is asked to identify himself, the response Kiarostami authors for him borders on self-parody: “Do I have to answer that?”

And yet, by the time Kiarostami unveils the first shot, Like Someone is Love already seems bewilderingly straightforward. Over some lilting soft jazz, a woman’s voice speaks the film’s pivotal line in bluntly informal Japanese: “I’m not lying to you.” And there we are, crouching in the corner of a woozy and crowded Tokyo bar, sussing through the clamor to give that girl a face. While the frame’s composition evokes Ozu (Kiarostami’s known affection for whom this film makes frequently evident), the task it has for us is far too demanding for it to be mistaken for a pillow shot—we’re looking for someone who isn’t there. Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is hiding just off-frame, a childlike college student in the midst of a tersely intimate conversation on her cell phone (a jealous boyfriend?). The introduction immediately establishes the film’s fluid interplay between private lives and public spaces—vintage Kiarostami—but there’s something lurid and immediate about Akiko’s drama that makes Like Someone in Love feel like a movie, conventional where Certified Copy was dizzyingly obstinate. Akiko is surrounded by attractive young people (she even has a “sexy best friend”), and though she’s a teenage prostitute, sex is never explicitly mentioned in the film, and the pleasantries of Japanese culture allow the precise nature of her duties to remain realistically unexplored.

When Akiko’s pimp dumps her into the backseat of a taxi and dispatches the girl to visit a gentleman on the outskirts of the city, the film fully assumes its veneer of impenetrability. It’s typical of Kiarostami’s work to produce a car at the moment when most scripts unveil their call to adventure, but the vehicular sequences in Like Someone in Love develop with a formal genius that makes Ten and Taste of Cherry feel like protracted test-drives. As Akiko is chauffeured through the heart of the glowing megalopolis, the miasmic lights of Shibuya sliding across the car’s windshield, she listens to a string of unrequited voicemails from her visiting grandmother. As the scene sinks into a deeper sadness, what initially plays like a sad and self-contained echo of Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) evolves into a harrowing portrait of modern remove, where voices are divorced from their bodies and people are so divided from one another that touching has become its own kind of violence (the film’s only memorable incident of physical contact comes in the form of an off-screen punch). Kiarostami isn’t explicitly raging against the present—his cars don’t Crash—but rather using simple imagery to explore the democratization of space and the extent to which the infinity of communication has dangerously devalued context.

Akiko’s client for the evening is a retired professor named Watanabe Takashi (the character’s name is likely a nod to Ikiru’s tragic Watanabe-san, immortalized by Takashi Shimura; here Watanabe is played by Tadashi Okuno). Her pimp assures Akiko that she is the right girl for the job, but never elaborates as to why. A retired professor who lives alone with his books and fends off phone calls like they’re absurd invasions of his privacy, Takashi welcomes Akiko into his home and immediately begins to dote on the young girl, telling her that his restaurant-bought soup is homemade, but never intimating a desire for sex. The next day, Akiko’s fiancée will work his way into the picture and confuse Takashi for the girl’s grandfather, a rare development through which Kiarostami privileges his audience above his characters. But what seems like an olive branch is eventually revealed to be a trap, as the fiancé doesn’t take kindly to the idea that Akiko isn’t the woman he’s assumed her to be. Nevertheless, Like Someone in Love retains the ambiguity for which Kiarostami’s films are so notorious—he’s often been known to say, “Information is its own kind of pornography.” If that’s the case, Like Someone in Love is all but celibate.

This is Kiarostami’s second consecutive feature to be filmed outside of his native Iran, but his first to be made in a language of which he has zero understanding. The decision to set Like Someone in Love in Japan might seem like an arbitrary obstruction given that the film is so entombed by its interiors, but it’s easy to imagine that Kiarostami hoped to lose something in translation, to amplify the fundamental unknowability of his characters by forcing them to speak in words authored by a man for whom they would ultimately have no meaning. In a film so concerned with the dialectic between inner lives and outer expressions, Kiarostami helps to ensure that the film is somewhat enigmatic even to its creator, adding a practical element to his usual gamesmanship. In other respects, he understands Japan perfectly well. The film responds to its host country as a place where the demarcation of spaces is ritualized—it’s no accident that few of Kiarostami’s 60 hyper-economic set-ups (that’s an exact count) are returned to as frequently as the entranceway to Takashi’s apartment, where the old man changes between shoes like he’s depressurizing from a walk on Mars. Moreover, surely such a professor is familiar with Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties, and is familiar with the intrusions he’s expected to visit upon his guest.

The film sustains a physical quality that has been absent (but not missing) from Kiarostami’s work since 1999’s The Wind Will Carry Us, and here it works as a wicked jolt for anyone convinced that his recent films have little on their mind beyond testing the elasticity of his obsessions. Like Someone in Love packs on additional weight from a superbly textured soundscape of ambient city noises—the most feral piece of jazz in a film that often glides along to a gentle late-night rhythm, it never allows Tokyo to grow absent. The outside world is always right on the other side of the window, honking at Takashi when he drifts to sleep behind the wheel at a red light, or climbing up the walls of his unremarkable apartment building. Kiarostami’s characters have never felt so autonomous, and yet the invisible brawn of his craft makes them feel oppressively alone. His framing is often schematic—particularly so far as he almost never allows his odd couple to occupy the same frame, chopping them into singles even when they’re sitting next to one another—but his formal stubbornness begins to undercut the deceit of his characters, magnifying their bullshit despite the natural temptation to revel in it.

Seemingly uninterested in matching the emotional heights of Certified Copy, Kiarostami denies Like Someone in Love the playful consent that made his previous film such a fanciful sinkhole. Few films have been so comprehensively attuned to the mechanics of isolation or how our need to define each other pivots on that process, and—as in all of his masterpieces—Kiarostami’s patience eventually allows his most abstract ideas to collect into a dramatic moment of palpable suspense. Kiarostami has publicly avowed that he prefers films that put audiences to sleep, and yet his new movie delivers the best jump-scare of 2012.

But the most resonant moment of this film, every shot of which lingers in the memory, is a quiet aside in Takashi’s living room. His apartment’s long corridor is bisected by a portrait of a Japanese girl, supposedly, as it is stated, the first traditional painting to marry a local theme with a Western style. At first it seems like little more than a nod to the film’s multinational production, but then Akiko confesses to her new client that, when she was a child she was convinced that this famous painting was actually of her. “Not a day goes by without me being told that I look like someone,” she tells Takashi. Like Someone in Love achieves perfection because it shows us exactly what those people see.