Like Someone in Love (2012, Abbas Kiarostami)
Before Her happened, my biggest moment of cinematic alienation from our current decade was not really liking Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy all that much. Though it’s undeniably attractive and sometimes insightful, I thought it hid behind dreams and puzzlement to avoid letting us know people, or get at deeper truths. You could level the same accusation at Kiarostami’s follow-up, Like Someone in Love, which is even more beautiful to look at and even more narratively benign and confusing. Like its predecessor, it finds the Iranian filmmaker in new territory, this time Japan and specifically circling the life of a Tokyo sex worker who’s paying for school; and like its predecessor, it sets up a seamlessly sweeping story of communication, emotion and subtlety then completely and unexpectedly undercuts all that we have seen.
The first act of the picture is out-and-out masterful, in every respect. We follow Akiko (Rin Takanashi) through a night in a club that serves as the base for her prostitution job (which the film takes care not to shame); she runs afoul of intrusive calls from her possessive asshole of a boyfriend as well as voicemails from her grandmother, who hopes in vain to meet with her for dinner. Akiko circles the projected meeting place but does not leave the car, a moment of considerable power and aching honesty for a scene about someone choosing not to do anything. Instead she heads to the home of a high-end client who doesn’t seem to want to have sex with her, just engages her in conversation, gives her food and puts her to bed. Said client is a retired professor who now works as a freelance translator (Tadashi Okuno) and seems simply to yearn for company. He’s not the least bit sinister, and she wakes up in his home safely and peacefully. This entire sequence is startlingly beautiful — carefully paced, intriguing but not invasive and lovingly human, but also aesthetically stunning in its contrast of the harsh pulsating nightlife with the warmth and peace of the professor’s apartment.
The rest of the film is concerned with the consequences of this benign scenario, and it’s integral to note that such an innocent, calm and consensual evening oughtn’t have consequences, but such is the sickening inevitability of what happens next. All of the chess pieces are in place after the night, and once day dawns everyone is set on an unbreachable path. The professor gives Akiko a ride to school but they are met and tormented by her boyfriend Noriaki, who chooses to believe the old man is Akiko’s grandfather and attempts to win his approval as a result. Because Noriaki is a mechanic, this leads to his awkwardly scrambling to repair a minor car problem. And then with John Collier-like ironic precision, the professor sees a former student, an acquaintance of Noriaki’s, and the stage is set for violence, vengeance, the intolerant broodings of jealousy that will wreck everything and make so much of so little.
The finale of the film has Akiko hiding out in the professor’s apartment again, with Noriaki waiting outside — a crash, a fall, and a rapid roll of credits, then nothing. Pure ambiguity. What? What on earth? everyone is thinking. The ploy almost seems cheap, a cliffhanger with no resolution, a strangely arrhythmic move away from a grooved coherence, like if the recent Coen Brothers movies ended in even more jarring a fashion. It would be easy to grouse at the sudden ending that you’ve just seen something that now feels pointless, but the film’s tactic is careful, thoughtful, even a little witty in what seems at first blush its narrative ineptitude. Yet my central frustration is still that the cleverly (or annoyingly) crafty games of the plot are a way of avoiding the potential depth and emotional reality of the characters, who seem to demand to be known without giving us the opportunity. Kiarostami is so brilliant at drawing us into this world, and it seems almost violent to leave us with such a rude and cruel awakening.
Of all the interpretations I’ve read of the film online, the most compellingly plausible is also the most irksomely superficial — that the film means to recast romantic comedy traditions as realistic human melodrama, thus illustrating just how miserably sick the relationships depicted in such films typically are. Cutesily obsessive jealousies are taken to their logical violent conclusions, while loneliness, despair and a feeling of having no control over one’s life are just par for the everyday course. But I want the film to mean more than that, because I like these people and I’m interested in them, not in some calculated manipulation of them to prove a fairly obvious point. That last shot, after some deliberation, is fine with me; for one thing, it recalls the end of Frenzy, sudden rolled credits even, and also the entire movie does lead up to it, and challenges us to realize that every event in the prior 24 hours has now reached a tipping point, and all of these lives are about to change. We don’t get to learn how exactly, and maybe that’s for the better? Maybe not. It will always feel like a cheat to a good many of us.
Unsurprisingly then, it’s in the quiet moments, the conversations and the subtle revelations of longing, history and loss that the film is most effective, and once again its commitment to its comparatively shallow central conceit almost seems an obligatory distraction. Nothing can offset the visual perfection of the first forty or fifty minutes, though, beginning with the chaotic neon Tokyo nightclub, extending to lamp-lit interiors and finally the hazy, overwhelmed hangover underneath a reflective windshield. All in all, Like Someone in Love is a beautiful and frustrating experience, and maybe that’s the way cinema’s meant to be.