(Two or three things: the hypnotically beautiful Rin Takanashi as a woman of shifting identities in Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love. Below, the artist in action. Images courtesy of IFC Films and Sundance Selects.)
The most ravishing opening I’ve seen in recent movies occurs at the beguiling and elegant start of Abbas Kiarostami’s newest film, Like Someone in Love. Inside a Tokyo bar, the calm though insistently pressing voice of a young woman is heard, and Kiarostami masterfully sustains the rhythm, tone and almost quietly nervous desperation inherent in her soft vocal register.
The moment is graceful, poetic and above all, mysterious because of the complex ways Kiarostami disorientates the viewer, disguising or otherwise obfuscating the clean or coherent lines of the speaker from the corresponding images.
The spoken language, Japanese, also works to heighten the sense of evasiveness and furtive glances the camera records. Suddenly, sharply, Kiarostami identifies the speaker, the university student Akiko (the astonishingly beautiful Rin Takanashi), whom it becomes clear through the brusque business talk with an older man, works as an escort. The man orders her on an assignment, with an older client named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a retired professor, beginning the movie’s nocturnal though hard-edged journey from night to day.
Japanese female sexuality seems to exist, at least in the films I’ve seen, almost entirely in shadow and out of view. Direct representations of it or specific acknowledgement seems as taboo there as inside Tehran. It makes for an interesting corollary to the director’s own state of being, Iran’s greatest director who is caught between extremes, neither the outlaw dissident like Jafar Panahi nor a government collaborator, though a complex, original and unpredictable artist who’s now chosen to work outside his country on his last two films.
Kiarostami’s previous film, Certified Copy, I argued was his Sauve qui peut (la vie), that is, like Jean-Luc Godard, his “second first film,” after more than a decade working in a more experimental vein made possible by the advent of digital technology. This movie is the director’s Passion, concerned with different modes of address, a dialect on fluctuating identities, the director's own moral inquiries shaped from his position as a privileged outsider who’s dropped into an alien culture and becomes a witness to the customs, habits, beliefs and daily rituals of his subjects.
Yet, it is emphatically a Kiarostami movie, especially given the movie’s two key sequences that unfold inside the interior of cars, the first of Akiko being transported by taxi to the suburban home of her client; the second, the most beautiful image of the movie, of Takashi driving her to her university classes on the morning after their (enigmatic) night together. The use of light, like the mirrored shots of the sun-draped clouds refracted against the exterior car windshield, is absolutely extraordinary.
Some time ago, during one of the times I interviewed Kiarostami, he talked about the formal and narrative structures unfolding in cars.
“I insist on moving because-though I like the fixed frame-it helps me to see the moving frame as well. The second reason is the journey, moving from one point to the other. In our culture, journey doesn't necessarily mean moving from one place to the other. It could be a natural journey; any change of the ideas could constitute a journey.”
Kiarostami gracefully never burdens Akiko with the urge to empty her guilt or justify her reasons for working the sex trade. She is an individual, pensive and confused, perhaps, though also driven by the need to challenge the ruling orthodoxy. Kiarostami is more interested in documenting consequence than behavior.
He reveals action, movement, subtle inflections or behavioral details. Traces of her guilt, even personal embarrassment, are ever-present, especially a hypnotic sequence, during the first long movement inside the cab, where listening to the messages left on her cell phone from her grandmother, she has the driver drive by the train station where the old, frail woman nervously awaits word from her granddaughter, and the clipped, rushed exchange is heartbreaking.
Likewise, Takashi, an intellectual, a translator, a professor, betrays little shame or embarrassment at securing the services of a prostitute, but his loneliness, his sorrow, is implicit by his solitary movements and the rather extravagant means he undergoes to “impress,” her on his own terms. The uncertainty of narrative signaled at the start is the movie’s dominant leitmotif.
Like Certified Copy, the new work meditates on the very meaning and purpose of existence, the nature of “performance,” as people accept or deny their preferred social roles. Akiko’s work as an escort is possible to read as a critique of the extreme sexual subjugation of Japanese women, or simply a protest against the casual servitude manifest in most contemporary Japanese relationships.
The second possibility seems more than conjecture with the appearance of Noriaki (Ryo Kase), Akiko’s rather brutish boyfriend, in the movie’s final movement. His leering, palpable jealousy radically shakes the movie, and introduces a darker, even violent strain that ruptures the narrative.
The telling is elegant and hypnotic, but the results are typically knotty and elusive. Kiarostami’s cinema resists easy closure or resolution. The uncertainty of the beginning yields a discordant, abrasive space of unease and violation. The startlingly abrupt ending finalizes the abstract patterns and poetic surfaces, movingly suggesting as people glide through time and space, exchanging identities, feelings, point of view, they can run, but not hide.