The sense of displacement that runs through the new film Like Someone in Love (2012), playing at Atlanta’s Midtown Arts Cinema [March 22-28, 2013], should come as no surprise. This is filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s second feature to be set outside his native Iran (his last film, Certified Copy, was set in Tuscany). Even at home, as in his breakthrough 1997 feature A Taste of Cherry, his minimalist films often focus on angst-filled, enigmatic surfaces and the vast spaces that divide human beings even as they’re literally brought into close physical proximity. So while, the protagonists of Like Someone in Love may all live in Tokyo and they may all speak Japanese as their native language, their sense of belonging and connection seems to end there.
Like Someone in Love tells the story (if that’s the right word Kiarostami is almost anti-narrative in his ambitions) of Akiko (Rin Takanashi), an attractive young university student who has recently turned to prostitution to pay for her studies. Her image appears in a little advertisement sticker plastered all around Tokyo, which has aroused the suspicions of her protective and short-tempered boyfriend (Ryo Kase). The film opens on the night Akiko’s pimp sends her to the suburban home of a mild-mannered elderly retired professor (Tadashi Okuno), who seems more interested in behaving like ‘someone in love’ than in sex he’s prepared for an evening of conversation, dinner, champagne, and Ella Fitzgerald on the vintage record player singing the title song. He seems blind-sided, almost baffled, by Akiko’s invitation into bed. The bulk of the film concerns the morning after as the professor gives Akiko a ride back to the city, and the three characters meet up in various circumstances, alternately trying to prop up or see through various deceptions. “When you know you may be lied to,” the professor somewhat cynically explains to Akiko’s boyfriend, “it’s best not to ask questions. That’s what we learn from experience.”
Even by art house standards, the film is very spare. There’s little action and often just the tiniest sliver of drama, with the faintest hint of significance. The portions are small because what’s in front of you is meant to be savored but, just as in a restaurant where this is the practice, it’s understandable why some patrons might start to feel slighted. Still, Kiarostami is a master director whose simple surfaces and oblique narratives often belie troubled, complicated depths.
When Akiko first walks in to the professor’s home, we search the richly appointed scene like detectives, examining each detail for some clue as to who his character might be, good or bad, pathetic or admirable. Kiarostami provides no easy answers. The continuing curiosity, the on-going mystery of other people, is his line of work.
In the back of a cab on the way to the professor’s house, Akiko listens to a series of messages from her concerned grandmother imploring her to meet at the train station. Akiko orders the cab driver, who is taking her to the professor’s house an hour outside the city, to circle the station a few times, where Akiko may or may not spot her grandmother. There’s no dialogue between Akiko and her grandmother they don’t actually even meet and the woman whose back Akiko sees may or may not even be the grandmother. However, through this quiet accumulation of narrative information and the sublimely rotating reflections in the cab window at night, the scene develops an unexpected sense of epic weight and tragedy. (Long scenes that take place in cars where nothing and therefore everything seems to happen are part of Kiarostami’s signature style.)
There’s a surprising bit of prudishness to the film. When Akiko undresses for bed, she’s seen only in a distorted reflection in a flat-screen TV. There is thankfully no subsequent slow-pan to billowing curtains, but we do cut to the next morning, and Kiarostami maintains the secret as to whether or not Akiko and the professor have slept together. It’s a missing piece of the story which can be more frustrating than intriguing. The viewer is conscious of this as directorial manipulation as a mystery left for the audience, not the characters.
The film features some pretty incredible shots of Tokyo, often seen partially reflected in windows or glimpsed from the back of a cab, and Kiarostami has an almost sculptural sense of space and an eagle-eye for how human beings can feel alienated in it. The ending with its sudden act of vandalism seems abrupt and frustratingly oblique (it reportedly drew laughter and boos at Cannes), but it lingers as defiantly hopeful. There’s so much glass around that when someone’s finally willing to break some of it, I’m willing to accept it as a good thing. Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love is a minimalist enigma in which motivation, identity and meaning are rendered as perpetually mysterious, unstable and elusive, and paradoxically, they seem all the more familiar for it.