Abbas Kiarostami’s follow-up to Certified Copy is a brilliant formal exercise in which the audience, as usual, is part of the puzzle.
What to make of the elusive Like Someone in Love? Following Saturday’s screening of Abbas Kiarostami’s latest film—his second straight feature shot outside of Iran after 2010’s Certified Copy—the bemused chatter amongst departing audience members was deafening. On the back of one of the most unceremonious endings in recent memory, this is hardly an unexpected response. I do, however, take issue with the knee-jerk dismissal of the film on the basis of its puzzling nature; “WTF” the perfunctory catchall phrase being lazily bandied about. Admittedly, it pays to be onside with Kiarostami’s strategies as a filmmaker, but even so, why the need to cry foul when a film doesn’t—shock, horror—conform to expectation or pony up with answers?
Like Someone in Love is quintessential Kiarostami insofar as it reverses the order of perception. Instead of providing us with all the cues, signposts, and destinations implicit in a conventional three-act structure, as well as a direct line to the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and motives, he presents us with a world in which we must guide ourselves around. On those terms, one might argue that Kiarostami is choosing to disregard the audience—a completely hostile notion—but he is in fact welcoming the spectator as a thinking, questioning participant, one who is prompted to take an active role in the formation of the film itself. Steve Garden, in his excellent appreciation of Ten, says it best when defining the “antithesis” of Kiarostami’s films: “Their elliptical quality allows viewers to make their own connections, find their own meanings, and reflect on the implications of the work—including the act of watching it!”
This elliptical quality, perhaps more accurately described as a series of indirect absences, is illustrated with stunning efficiency in the film’s very first scene, one of Kiarostami’s finest opening gambits. Beginning with the closely framed interior of a bar in Tokyo, this single-take image is accompanied by a voice in the background. Initially, our instinct is to look around and match the voice to the people within the frame. If not any of these people, then could it be a voiceover or another form of non-diegetic sound? After a few minutes, the image cuts to the source, a woman named Akiko (Rin Takanashi), who is just off to the right of the frame. Eventually the camera angle overlooking the bar is revealed to be a reverse shot; Akiko’s companion, Hiroshi (Denden, a cooly intimidating presence last seen in Sion Sono’s Cold Fish and Himizu), returns from the bathroom to the table she is seated at. Turns out the image we’ve been staring at all along is that of an empty seat—an invitation of sorts to vacate our position as passive viewers out there in the audience for this new, unfamiliar vantage point across the threshold.
As far as establishing shots go, Kiarostami’s set-up is at once intriguing and destabilizing—but then, he has never been one to spell out a situation in no uncertain terms purely for the audience’s benefit. The Tokyo we experience in Like Someone in Love is circumscribed by the characters’ perspective. The city is seen almost entirely from within a moving vehicle—Kiarostami’s favourite ‘interior’. There are no unnecessary wide shots or falsely poetic panoramas of Tokyo’s famed skyline; no bustling handheld vérité shots to immerse us in the pace and density of the city at ground level, a space the protagonists neither perceive nor inhabit. (Like Someone in Love’s appreciation of the city from the road as opposed to on foot or by rail results in a striking new impression of Tokyo.) Again, one might be tempted to accuse Kiarostami of inexplicably ignoring his surroundings, but as he has reiterated in interviews, he is simply being faithful to reality. This ‘reality’ is precisely what stimulates our capacity for interaction with the filmed image; detached observation being the default viewing mode. You won’t see an intermediary two-shot in the film’s opening scene, for instance; as Kiarostami reveals in this conversation, a third person perspective is of no interest to him, because when talking to another person, “what you see is the person in front of you, you don’t see yourself.”
That the entire bar sequence consists of only two alternating shots says as much about the deceptive simplicity of Kiarostami’s filmmaking as it does his mastery of intersubjectivity. And finding our way around the scene is an endlessly fascinating exercise, one I hope to revisit before not too long. Apart from allowing us to step into the film through an unusual entry point, Kiarostami drops us midstream into a conversation, one that is doubly ambiguous because it is taking place in an off screen space, and, as we come to learn, is also a phone call, where only half of the dialogue is audible. When Hiroshi returns to his seat, a separate conversation, no more clear-cut than the first, resumes, and Kiarostami willfully draws this and other scenes out to give us the room to make our own assumptions and conclusions about what is unfolding. Like Someone in Love’s emphasis on the integrity of the world it portrays—one that is never adjusted for the sake of orienting the viewer or eliminating vagueness—isn’t unique in the realm of art cinema, however it is more distinct than most. For instance, it shares a special quality of strangeness with the films of Lucrecia Martel, an expert at immersing us in secretive, sealed-off realities.
As a companion piece, how does Like Someone in Love stack up against Certified Copy? Both follow a fairly linear path on the surface, and Kiarostami’s new film, although unfurled at a teasing pace, is no coy attempt at audience manipulation, the kind typical in a ‘slow reveal’ narrative. Hiroshi, we discover from listening in, is a pimp, and Akiko an escort. He ships her off to a client she reluctantly agrees to service, having already arranged to meet her grandmother at the train station. (In a beguiling sequence, she listens to a series of voice messages from her grandmother wondering why she hasn’t come to collect her while being taxied through the neon heart of Tokyo.) She falls asleep without so much as a kiss (or so we’re lead to believe) at the client’s apartment, a retired professor named Takashi, and in the morning he drives her to university for an exam. What happens next is classic Kiarostami: Akiko bumps into her possessive boyfriend (Ryo Kase, the one on the phone), and to spare her his jealous wrath, Takashi pretends to be her grandfather. Like Certified Copy, the double layering of performance is tripled when we factor in our own spectatorship and subjectivity.
Certified Copy is openly invested in the relationship between illusion and reality—as its title certifies, the value of art in its original vs. reproduced form is a major talking point, and is reflected in the curious role-play of the actors who challenge us to reconsider what is authentic and what is fabricated. It’s also a film that’s more thematically upfront; its ideas are channeled into both language and action, and its delivery is aided by the dexterous Juliette Binoche. Kiarostami’s trickery is much less obvious in Like Someone in Love, and the performances are not quite as acute, but it’s through this subtly and mystery of tone that the film must be regarded as a brilliant formal exercise in its own right. There’s something extremely porous about the way each scene is laid out, and the way the actors express themselves—clearly but never quite fully, as if they’re on unstable ground. Details of the characters’ lives are mostly glimpsed, creating a greater sense of uncertainty—the vagaries of fiction, in all its enticing glory. It all culminates in an abrupt ending that’s impossible to anticipate yet entirely in keeping with the ethos of Kiarostami’s art. Indeed, it’s not until we start to look backwards, and even sideways, at the film, that the slightness of the characterisations, the unusual silences and unfinished sentences, and the missing pieces of the story become openings rather than obstacles; windows rather than closed doors.
Seen in the context of a film festival whose mandate is to open our minds, this is the least we should expect of the films programmed: to engage our intelligence, not insult it. Like Someone in Love’s sudden conclusion might feel like a slap in the face, but once the shock wears off, I wager you’ll be thinking about it for days on end.