by Matt Levine
No one in the world today makes movies quite like Abbas Kiarostami: abstract and sincere, playful and profound, dreamlike without ever quite toppling over into surrealism. Often in his films, a tentative foundation of a story is constructed only to implode with theoretical diversions and enigmatic abstractions. In Close-Up (1990) and Through the Olive Trees (1994), both made in his native Iran, the line between cinema and reality is aggressively obscured; artifice and documentary bleed into one another, as characters suddenly undertake a new “performance” and shift identities. Perception is everything, Kiarostami suggests—an unnerving thought when our senses of sight and hearing are so eerily shaken by Kiarostami’s hypnotic style.
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Producers: Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz, Abbas Kiarostami
Writer: Abbas Kiarostami
Cinematographer: Katsumi Yanagijima
Cast: Rin Takanashi, Tadashi Okuno, Ryo Kase, Denden, Reiko Mori, Kaneko Kubota
Premiere: April 11, 2012 – Chicago International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 15, 2013
US Distributors: IFC Films, Sundance Selects
These self-reflexive themes persevered through the director’s first production shot outside of Iran, Certified Copy (2011), made on the sun-dappled streets of Lucagnino, Italy. Though it was tightening censorship constraints in Iran that largely coerced Kiarostami to shoot overseas, it’s surprising that he didn’t make movies about foreign cultures earlier, as his recurring themes of displacement and perception are naturally suited to an exile’s point-of-view. True, themes of cultural identity don’t explicitly enter into Certified Copy, in which the relationship between an art collector and a writer in Tuscany seems to spin through a carousel of alternate realities, from gregarious strangers to a bickering married couple. But the meta-cinematic idea behind the film—that our everyday behavior is mostly reliant on the roles other people expect us to play—becomes especially complex when applied to a cultural outsider, without the benefit of a shared language.
With Like Someone in Love, Kiarostami’s second film in a row shot outside of Iran, the director casts his eye on the bustling modern metropolis of Tokyo (the inverse of Certified Copy’s setting). The first shot of the film (which has already become widely celebrated) is loaded with a surplus of visual and aural information—you’d have to go back to Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) to find such a jam-packed widescreen composition. In a crowded urban bar, an offscreen voice introduces us to Akiko (Rin Takanashi), though her image remains tauntingly withheld throughout a very long static shot; she has a heated cell phone conversation with her jealous boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase), though it’s difficult to ascertain this at first. Gradually it becomes clear that Akiko moonlights as a high-end prostitute while putting herself through college; her distinguished pimp forces her visit an important client, despite the fact that her grandmother has traveled to Tokyo to see her.
Like Tati with Playtime, Kiarostami enjoys crafting scenes that do function in the narrative (at least in part) but are predominantly formal constructions for the audience to unpack, with disjunctive or mysterious sights and sounds that are just waiting to be decoded. In the first scene, Akiko’s friend Nagisa (Reiko Mori) has a conversation with someone whose presence is always barely offscreen. Meanwhile, sights and sounds seem to contradict each other, as our visual focus may be drawn to an insignificant group of strangers while a wholly unrelated conversation predominates the soundtrack. Kiarostami always makes sure we’re aware of cinema’s formal components, and by subverting them he simultaneously weakens our self-confidence in our own senses.
Akiko irately embarks to meet her unknown client, though she asks her cab driver to pass by the courtyard where her grandmother is waiting (not once but twice) to glimpse her from a distance through the taxi window. It’s a heartbreaking moment, especially since immediately beforehand we listen to a lengthy series of phone messages from Akiko’s grandmother. The hazy image that Akiko gleans through the window is inconclusive (it’s hard to even tell who she’s looking at precisely) but it means everything to her—a fleeting perception that carries with it a wealth of emotional connotations. These, Kiarostami suggests, are the sensory memories that make up who we are.
It seems easy to predict where the movie is going in the first half-hour, especially when we meet Akiko’s “important client”—an elderly intellectual who seems to view her as a surrogate daughter (he has no interest in sex)—and her jealous boyfriend. We are introduced to the intellectual, Takashi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno), by a slow, graceful pan through his apartment from Akiko’s point-of-view: it’s a simple camera movement, but something about its slowness and the colorful set design makes it seem otherworldly. These books, paintings, and creature comforts are indications of Takashi’s personality, and Kiarostami has more interest in perusing these artifacts than in providing a more explicit backstory for the character. His doting bashfulness around Akiko suggests that he’s simply a lonely old man who wants some kind of human connection (not necessarily sexual).
Kiarostami seems to intentionally set up the predictable foundation of a bittersweet love triangle, only to leap from it when a more interesting idea appears in the distance. The prostitute-client relationship between Akiko and Takashi seems to morph into something familial: after Takashi pretends to be Akiko’s grandfather in front of his neighbor and her boyfriend, he seems to literally adopt this persona, driving her to school and rushing her to safety when she’s injured. Perhaps he is deluding himself, pretending that he and his companion can play the intimate grandfather and granddaughter—simply adopting new roles to add to their repertoire. In the film’s final shot, though—one of the most abrupt and confounding in recent memory (a common feature in Kiarostami’s movies)—reality seems to come crashing in, breaking the screen that exists between Takashi’s reality and his fantasies.
The character of Takashi’s neighbor is especially interesting, though the film almost treats her plight callously. She has a lengthy conversation with Akiko, seated despondently on Takashi’s front doorstep, through a rectangular window that looks conspicuously like a movie screen. The neighbor admits she had wanted to marry Takashi long ago, and that it might have happened had he not met his future wife (how quickly a simple decision or unexpected meeting can change the direction of our lives). There’s no real communication between the neighbor and Akiko; it’s like they live in separate realities, separated by a screen through which they can only see and hear each other. The metaphor for cinema certainly seems intentional, though it could be pessimistic (an unsurpassable rift separated by the characters' own perceptions and assumptions) or optimistic (a bridge where we might come to identify with someone totally outside of our existence).
Like Someone in Love is thematically rich and formally audacious, yet it lacks what underlies many of Kiarostami’s abstractions and what makes them truly special: a humanistic basis, a desire to deconstruct in order to understand. In Close-Up, the impostor who poses as the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf becomes simultaneously more poignant and more inscrutable as the movie goes on, a believably complex human being made up of numerous contradictions. The formal experimentation in Ten (2002), in which dashboard cameras in a Tehran taxicab capture semi-scripted dialogues from real-life people, is ultimately devoted to providing an eclectic cross-section of modern Iranian life, exhibiting particular empathy for the female residents of the city. And in Certified Copy, the obfuscation of identity and behavior is meant to be romantic, asking how and why two people love each other, and how human behavior can be both infuriating and ravishing.
Usually, Kiarostami is able to balance his abstruseness with an empathy for the human condition, but that emotional connection is wholly missing from Like Someone in Love. Maybe that’s the point—that Takashi is simply behaving “like someone in love,” ultimately realizing that even this was simply another performance he felt compelled to undertake. Whatever the case, it sometimes seems like Kiarostami is indulging another self-reflexive exercise without advancing to any new thematic or emotional territory. This is especially unfortunate considering the character of Akiko: if you're going to make yet another movie about a beautiful, alienated prostitute, there needs to be greater complexity and sensitivity applied to such an overused character type. Rin Takanashi does what she can with the role (there are some undeniably effective sequences, including her first conversation with the bumbling Takashi), but she primarily seems instructed to sleepwalk through most of the film. Without a doubt, a tossed-off Kiarostami experiment is still more intriguing and alluring than many other movies out there, but it’s a letdown for fans of the director who are still riding the high of Certified Copy. The final shot of that film is tantalizingly cryptic, but it’s compelling because it confounds our assumptions about how people interact with those they love. In its chilly artifice, Like Someone in Love hardly raises the possibility of intimacy. It places human behavior under a disorienting microscope, but somehow it loses sight of what’s so human about it.