Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love continues the filmmaker's recent trend, per his Tuscany-set Certified Copy, of stories set in non-Persian milieu -- in this case, contemporary Japan. It also reunites Kiarostami with the Paris-based Karmitz family, who produced the earlier picture, and it features an entirely Japanese cast communicating in their native language. That Iranian-Franco-Japanese pedigree may make the movie sound like a curious multinational hybrid. It's no small testament to Kiarostami's skill that the results never feel schizoid -- culturally or otherwise. The film achieves a commendable emotional and stylistic fluidity and a Japanese homogeneity that obfuscate its patchwork origins. And for roughly 104 of its 109 minutes, Like Someone succeeds as a modestly scaled, artfully woven tapestry of intersecting human lives, until a baffling last-minute miscalculation threatens to upend the picture and leaves us less than completely satisfied.
Rin Takanashi stars as Akiko, a delicately beautiful young Japanese woman who works for a Tokyo call-girl service, and uses the income to put herself through a sociology program at a local university. She's estranged from what sounds like a loving family, and engaged to Noriaki (Ryo Kase), a hotheaded, violent creep who has no knowledge of her after-hours occupation. One evening, Akiko's pimp strong-arms her into visiting a client in a nearby area, and she winds up at the home of Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a retired university professor and author. He's a sweet elderly man with nary a trace of erotic desire, and seems far more interested in dining and chatting with Akiko than in having sex with her -- even after she removes her clothes, climbs into bed, and pleads with him to join her. The next day, Noriaki turns up, meets Takashi, and assumes that the elderly man is Akiko’s grandfather.
It would be difficult to overstate the success of the bulk of this picture. Throughout, we get the bravura technique that we look forward to in a Kiarostami film, such as a deceptive opening-shot sequence that initially misleads us regarding the identity of a speaking character, and then forces us (Lav Diaz-style) to scrutinize the details of an ensemble scene. Similarly, Kiarostami interpolates a couple of masterful extended takes that observe Akiko's face during a taxicab ride, first as she listens to increasingly despairing voicemail messages from her grandmother and then as she scours a local bus station for sight of the old woman. This sort of stylistic audacity saturates the picture, but the devices enlisted by Kiarostami are not gratuitous, for the director has chosen them with great strategic foresight. He uses them to make us more consciously aware of how we perceive situations and characters, and read the dynamic of scenes within the movie.
Coincident with this, Kiarostami also uses the tale to revel in ambiguities. He pulls off the double feat of ostensibly telling us everything that we need to know about these individuals, and yet teasingly lacing the picture with many enigmas. For instance: We watch the cab driver who takes Akiko to her client as he phones the man and doesn't get an answer. In a follow-up scene, the driver walks into a nearby pub (with Akiko asleep in the car), meets Takashi, assumes that the old man is the escort client, and hands the girl off to him. But we're never quite sure if Takashi is the assigned john -- especially after Takashi seems startled and thrown by Akiko's attempts to wheedle him into bed. Is it possible that Takashi (who radiates loneliness) has merely crossed paths with Akiko and the driver at the right moment, and steps in as the client to fill his own need for companionship? We're never told. Similarly, the final scenes hint at some mysterious familial tragedy in Takashi's past that, again, could account for his emotional isolation, but Kiarostami never expounds on it. These tantalizing suggestions of deeper truths are exhilarating, in lieu of frustrating.
The character of Noriaki is also beautifully constructed and rendered. In what may be the movie's most successful sequence -- a conversation between the two men, seated in a car -- Noriaki slyly attempts to ingratiate himself with the elderly gentleman. It's a seductive bit -- so much so that we may find ourselves persuaded by the fiance’s airs -- until Kiarostami then breaks us out of our stupor by having Takashi acknowledge to Akiko (out of earshot from Noriaki) how much he dislikes the young man, and sees through his attempts at psychological manipulation. Again, it's Kiarostami bringing us back to the core themes of perception and deception, and how each can influence the other.
As indicated, all of this succeeds on its own terms, but the movie has a letdown up its sleeve. Of late, it has recently become chic, in art-house circles, to avoid providing a conventional ending. In some cases, such as Resnais' Wild Grass or Frederick Pelletier's Diego Star, the dispensation is thematically justifiable. Here, it isn't. Kiarostami takes all the requisite steps to build a drama and construct three-dimensional characters in whom we become fully emotionally invested, and then pulls the rug out from under us, working against his own better interests. Did he equate such an abrupt wrap-up with intelligence? With sophistication? With hipness? Or does he believe that narrative closure is akin to some sort of bourgeois luxury? Who knows. But none of the above apply, and as a result, the final scene doesn't work. This may sound paradoxical given the fact that character ambiguity is one of the film's core strengths, but the open-endedness of the denouement rests on a different sort of opaqueness: an unfulfilled dramatic arc, which is much more difficult to swallow.
This gaffe is particularly surprising given the sublimity that Kiarostami has achieved in the preceding scenes. He sets up a fascinating story with rich, detailed, nuanced characters who have full and interesting backstories, and then sets them free on the same platform to observe their interactions with one another. He also spins a relatively simple story into a luminous meditation on reality, illusion, the identities we construct for ourselves, the paths we forge in life, and the unseen barriers that prevent us from making certain decisions that could be either immeasurably beneficial, or destructive. Given these enormous successes within the movie, it merits a strong recommendation, even if the ending will rightly infuriate most viewers. leave a comment --Nathan Southern