That word like might be the skeleton key here.
I have been marinating for a day or so in Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami’s latest, deliberately confounding head-scratcher—another purposefully oblique, open-ended conversation piece executed with consummate formal control—and I can at least get on board with the complaints from my betters that this is not one of his major works. (So we’re all supposed to hit a home run every time we step up to the plate?) Like Someone in Love is indeed a minor-key riff on a lot of the same themes he explored in his last picture, the towering Certified Copy. But it’s also one hell of a riff.
Only his second international fiction feature, Like Someone in Love transplants the typical Kiarostami obsessions to Tokyo, but longtime fans need not be worried about anything being lost in translation. We’ve still got all the exquisitely composed, locked-down frames, side-winding semiotically loaded conversations, and, of course, that old constant of the automobile as a hermetic bubble wherein his characters can remain trapped within themselves while still ostensibly moving through the world.
We begin with Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a flighty undergraduate call-girl dodging constant phone calls from her hectoring, possibly-abusive boyfriend and trying to shrug off another assignment from her weary-eyed, weirdly paternal pimp. The opening sequence is a marvel of judicious blocking, layering Akiko’s friends and co-workers in the shifting tableau of a bustling nightclub, each taking their turns sitting down and almost directly addressing the camera when it’s their turn to talk to her. The reverse shot finds Akiko alone, pinned near a maddeningly out-of-reach exit door in smushed, telephoto perspective. It’s a good 15 minutes of dialogue that sets up the entire picture, brought off with such bravura showmanship, I wanted to stop the movie and watch it again before anybody went on any further.
Blowing off her visiting grandmother—whose increasingly sad voicemail messages we are privy to on the soundtrack—Akiko takes a dreamy, sleepy cab ride out to a job about an hour from the city. The appointment—doddering, exceedingly courtly old man of letters Takashi (Tadashi Okuno)—takes a break from his latest translation gig and treats her with doting, grandfatherly affection. She wants to get it over with already, but he would like to have a glass of wine and a chat and, as it happens, just cooked up some soup. He’s not a dirty old man, just a lonely one.
Akiko’s attempts at seduction are framed quite extraordinarily as a blurred reflection within a turned-off TV screen, as Takashi politely averts his eyes in the corner of the frame. He wants to take care of somebody, and as their conversations continue, it becomes more and more clear that she could use the help. In typical Kiarostami fashion, not a word here is wasted. A tacky painting on the writer’s wall becomes subject to dozens of interpretations: It’s a young girl teaching a parrot, or was that the other way around?
Like Someone in Love’s characters eventually find a convenient fiction and start sticking to it. Akiko is typically mistaken for Takashi’s estranged granddaughter, so the two figure, what the hell? They roll with the fiction for a day or so, play acting for the neighbors and that hopped-up, crazy-jealous boyfriend of hers (Ryo Kase). Lies mount, coincidences become unfortunate, and the more this movie goes on, the more you will notice Kiarostami seems to be shrinking his actors, pushing them into tighter and tighter corners of the screen as their little game goes on past the point of diminishing returns.
I was enraptured by Like Someone in Love, taken with a visual intelligence and thoughtfulness we seldom see onscreen. The deliberate pace will perhaps not be for everybody, but the wonderful Ella Fitzgerald soundtrack lulls you into the movie’s languor. I could have watched it all day, until Kiarostami eventually realizes that he has to come up with an ending.
To his credit, it is swift, half-hearted, and the whole movie is over before you can even really register what just happened. I get the (screamingly) obvious symbolic digs here—real life comes abruptly crashing from the sky into a shared fantasy. But it also feels cheap, abrupt and far too literal-minded compared to the sumptuousness and mystery of the film’s previous 108 minutes.
Mulling it over afterward, part of me thinks that might have been Like Someone in Love’s point all along; why else concoct such a woozy, delicate little bubble if you aren’t going to pop it? As with most Kiarostami pictures, this will require some additional consideration.
Like Someone in Love
Starring: Rin Takanashi, Tadashi Okuno, Ryo Kase
Director: Abbas Kiarostami