The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami makes elegant, formally stunning movies in which every detail counts. The placement of the camera, the composition and duration of each shot, the quality of background noise, the apparently offhanded naturalistic dialogue, all gradually converge into necessary parts of a whole. A Kiarostami film demands and rewards a state of quiet, alert attention.
With his last two films, Kiarostami has begun working outside Iran for the first time since his 2001 documentary ABC Africa, in part because of the theocratic government’s repressive treatment of filmmakers. Kiarostami’s films have been banned there for over a decade, and many of his colleagues have been imprisoned, placed under house arrest, or forbidden to make movies (hence the sly title of This Is Not a Film, the 2011 semi-documentary that director Jafar Panahi smuggled out of the country on a USB drive hidden in a cake). Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) was an enigmatic parable about love and identity shot in Tuscany. The film won Juliette Binoche a Best Actress award at Cannes and exposed the director to his widest Western audience yet.
These recent Kiarostami converts may be confused by Like Someone in Love, which develops some of the same themes as Certified Copy in a creepier minor key. Both films involve mistaken or assumed identities, extended road trips (a favorite Kiarostami theme), and chance encounters that change everything. But where Certified Copy gradually draws the viewer into its pleasurably dizzying vortex, Like Someone in Love, set in the more sterile environs of Tokyo, keeps us always at arm’s length.
Like Someone in Love has a story so simple it seems diaphanous: A Tokyo call girl spends the night with an elderly scholar, who then spends the next day driving her around Tokyo with her unstable boyfriend. But when the film’s slender 107-minute running time is over, it’s gone places you never would have imagined, both narratively and thematically. In the virtuosic stationary long take that opens the movie, we meet—at first only through the sound of her off-screen voice—Akiko (Rin Takanishi), a young woman who, we’ll later gather, is a college student supplementing her income with a secret job as a high-end prostitute.
Akiko’s boss is pressuring her to take on an important client; reluctantly, she agrees to visit the man, first turning off her phone to avoid the entreaties of both her needy boyfriend and her visiting grandmother (who, we learn in a plaintive series of voicemails, appears to have been waiting all day to be picked up at a Tokyo train station).
Once Akiko arrives at the client’s house, their encounter quickly becomes something different than either expected. The man, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) is an aged scholar and translator who seems less interested in getting busy than in spinning some Ella Fitzgerald (who sings the ravishing song that gives the movie its title) and discussing the history of Japanese painting. After a chaste, chatty night (during which Akiko disappoints her host primarily by falling asleep before she can eat the special meal he’s prepared), Takashi insists on driving Akiko to her morning class at the university. There, he’s mistaken for her visiting grandfather by her boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase), a jealous, emotionally abusive type who watches her every move like a hawk. Neither the young girl nor the old man are prepared to disabuse the potentially violent Noriaki of this notion, so the three of them spend an awkward few hours together, with Noriaki anxiously deferential toward the fake grandfather of the woman he hopes to marry and Akiko paralyzed with terror that her secret life will be discovered.
As for the old man, played by Okuno as a benevolent but opaque figure, we’re never quite sure what his investment is in these young people’s troubles. Does he play along with the grandfather role out of pity for the young woman’s plight, as part of a plan to help her extricate herself from what’s clearly a toxic relationship, or simply for the voyeuristic novelty of becoming someone different for a day? The last half of the movie doesn’t quite realize the rich potential offered by the first—unlike Certified Copy, this movie doesn’t open out, it closes in. The ending strikes a deliberately harsh, arrhythmic note that may puzzle and annoy many viewers. Like Someone in Love doesn’t so much end as screech to a stop, with a brusqueness that will elicit a “wait, what?” even from people (like me) who were fully on board up till then.
But if you’re a cinephile, Like Someone in Love is worth seeing for the filmmaking prowess alone. Kiarostami’s camera (wielded here by the cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima) is aware of what it’s doing at every second: who’s in the frame and who’s out, what visual information is being conveyed or withheld, where every shadow and reflection will fall. Reflections—in windows, in mirrors, in the screens of turned-off TVs—are one of Kiarostami’s longtime specialties. He uses them both as compositional elements and as narrative devices—his reflections don’t just sit there and look pretty, they do things in the story. As we watch Akiko’s beautiful, impassive face through a car window, we intuit her inner state mainly from the reflections that slide past her on the glass: the Tokyo street signs, the crowded train stations, the floating clouds. Like Someone in Love is a movie that never quite lets you through to the other side of the glass, but it’s dazzling to watch whatever drifts by on the surface.