JULY 8, 2013
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI IS BEST KNOWN for dusty, somber films shot in his native Iran, but his 2012 Like Someone in Love opens into a world of technology and neon. Its simple story revolves around an unlikely trio: a university student, Akiko (Rin Takanashi) who also works as a call girl, her elderly professor client, Takashi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno), and Akiko’s jealous car-mechanic fiancé, Noriaki (Ryo Kase). The film follows the relationship that develops between Takashi and Akiko: an odd species of intimacy that looks more professorial (she studies his specialty at the university where he was employed) or avuncular (he promises to take her to lunch after her exam, reminding her that she hasn’t had any breakfast) than professionally romantic. In any case, Noriaki easily takes Takashi for Akiko’s grandfather when he encounters him waiting for Akiko outside the school, and he beats Akiko when he learns the truth. The end of the film is unexpected and involves a broken window; it’s difficult to say much more than that.
The 1940s standard from which Kiarostami borrows the title plays twice, sung by Ella Fitzgerald: once during Akiko’s and Takashi’s ambiguous night together (he pours pink champagne, she falls asleep in his bed before he’s served the meal: he shrugs and sleeps on the couch) and once at the end of the film, as white curtains blow over the broken window. Who’s in love here? Certainly not the shuffling, bemused-looking professor; probably not Akiko; and only problematically, if at all, the wiry young mechanic in his greasy overalls. But maybe the question is about appearances, rather than psychologies: who looks like someone in love?
Kiarostami’s game in this film is played out through resemblances and surfaces, rather than on the level of morality, narrative, or character; the emphasis falls on the “like” of the title. “Every day,” Akiko tells Takashi, “someone tells me that I look like someone else.” She looks like her mother, she looks like a famous Japanese portrait, she looks like (or not like) the picture of her pigtailed self in a phone-booth advertisement; she looks different seen through a taxi windshield at night or a Volvo windshield on a sunny morning; she is also, of course, a movie actress playing a role. She’s inscrutable — but this sort of indeterminacy is fundamental to Kiarostami’s work across his career. “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles”; so runs Guy Debord’s pessimistic story of postmodernism and late capital. “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” For Debord, this is cause for despair. For Kiarostami, it’s something else.
The first scene of Like Someone in Love takes place in a dark and crowded café, full of groups of people eating, drinking wine, talking on cell phones. Akiko is present, also on the phone. For a good part of the scene, sound and vision are split: we hear Akiko’s voice, carrying on one end of a conversation with the suspicious Noriaki, but the camera probes the corners of the dim interior rather than focusing on the woman who speaks. Voice becomes separated from visual presence: Akiko is in our ears but not our sight. This trick — the distinct separation of voice and face — is a favorite of Kiarostami’s: given a cast of relatively few characters, answering machines and voicemails heard through headphones sometimes stand in for face-to-face dialog, and shouts through an apartment intercom or an open window, car radios, and scraps of children’s songs from outside make up the urban soundscape.
The flip side of this separation, though, is that if we don’t have to see the person talking sometimes we can better see the person listening — after a fashion. For if Kiarostami stages the mediation of sound, he also stages, or delights in, visual games of illusion and reflection. At one point during the opening scene, Akiko’s pimp, trying to convince the girl to take the special client, Takashi, steps outside the café to talk on the phone. We continue to see the café through the plate-glass window, behind him, its murmur dulled and his voice now instead of Akiko’s in our ears. But now the camera moves slightly off to the side so that we don’t see the pimp’s face but his back, his white shirt reflecting ghostly in the window. Later, on the way to Takashi’s apartment in a pleasant-looking suburb an hour’s drive away, Akiko listens, absorbed, to message after message from her grandmother on the headphones of her phone. Absorbed, we watch her through the windows of the taxi. The lighted slogans of billboards and traffic signs float over her face as she (and we) listen. These slow, smooth, quiet scenes are among the movie’s most engrossing: in staging the component parts of attention, Kiarostami captures ours.
But what does Like Someone in Love’s world of shimmering advertisements and Polaroids of smiling prostitutes have to do with Kiarostami’s previous work? With the exception of 2010’s Certified Copy, which takes place in Tuscany and stars Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, Kiarostami’s films have been made in Iran with primarily Iranian casts and crew. Kiarostami’s artistic exile from Iran is not entirely self-imposed. Instead, this translocation reveals as much about the difficult conditions of filmmaking under an increasingly repressive Iranian theocracy as it does about Kiarostami’s aesthetic preoccupations. Nevertheless, the direction of our attention, and the experience of a city from a moving car are not new elements of Kiarostami’s work; they have been essential to it all along. Both Taste of Cherry (1997) and Ten (2002), for instance — two of Kiarostami’s best known and most-appreciated films — rely heavily on the space and experience of automotive travel. In Ten the action takes place entirely inside a moving vehicle: the film gives us 10 episodes, each a conversation that occurs in the car with the female driver of the car, the cumulative effect of which is a flexible, multi-layered version of the concerns and conditions of the place and culture through which the car moves. Ten is shot using two digital cameras, one trained on the passenger and one on the driver. The visual focus is ostensibly the speakers in the car, but it’s difficult not to feel like a fellow passenger — not to notice the streets and shadows, passersby and storefronts of Tehran as the car makes its way around the city. Among the questions the film raises are those of the relationship between place and observation: who are we, caught up in the accidental intimacy of conversations inside the vehicle and accidental spectators of the Iranian city outside?
Less well known, Kiarostami’s 2008 Shirin is as stationary as Ten is mobile. The entire 90-minute film takes place inside a darkened theater, the camera in perpetual close-up on the expressive faces the all-female audience — Kiarostami assembles a cast of famous Iranian actresses, but Binoche is also among the women pictured — as they watch a performance of the Persian romance “Khosrow and Shirin.” The women watch; we hear, but what we see are the faces in the darkened theater. Once again, Kiarostami plays not only with the separation and examination of the senses, but also with the place and position of the spectator. In the situation the film sets up, the dramatic action of the play takes place behind the spectator (in reality, the romance was not performed for the actresses) who has turned her back on the narrative action to watch the watchers. Radically wrenching the conventions of narrative cinema, Kiarostami shows us what it looks like to watch. And more: this film reminds us that we’re a second-order audience too. As in Ten, in Shirin, Kiarostami’s interrogation of national and cultural identity is inseparable from the director’s concern with sound and vision — with what it means to see a film. The documentarist’s camera records the city through the passenger’s experience of it; a cultural artifact, the performed poem, also becomes the occasion for the formation of a relationship between two very different audiences.
If it’s an error to suppose that the sophisticated illusion that characterizes Kiarostami’s later films is a complete departure from his earlier work, it’s a worse one to cast Kiarostami’s work in Iran as only a simpler documentary style, its eye out chiefly for a sense of real place and culture. Nevertheless, Certified Copy feels different from films like Ten or A Taste of Cherry: it’s Kiarostami’s progression further into the sort of meta-cinematics more evident in Shirin. In this sense, it’s a logical precursor to Like Someone in Love. Certified Copy again takes place largely in a moving car, between a series of beautiful Tuscan villages. The relationship between Binoche (ambiguously, “Elle”) and Shimell (James) is constantly in flux and never quite explained; the point is that the lovers are at every moment what they appear to be. There’s no difference between an authentic memory and a fabricated one, no original to stand superior to the copy. At the film’s end, “Elle” and James revisit a small hotel to relive the first night of their honeymoon. She directs him to look out the window, over the rooftops of the town. “Do you remember?” she asks. But the point is that there is no first place to revisit and no first night to relive. And there’s no difference between sight and memory: to appear is to be and to have been. Certified Copy ends almost transcendentally: the camera moves out of the frame of the window up into a Tuscan evening, about eight o’clock and still very light, all swallows and church-bells and rosy brick. All worries — or maybe they are confusions — about representation and simulation give way to an almost careless delight in the sensual freedom of the really pretended space.
But where Certified Copy creates ambiguity primarily using the dramatic devices of character, plot, and dialog — the protean relationship, James’s art-historical background — what’s most satisfying about Like Someone in Love is that the effect is created within and using the medium of cinema itself: the nature of the spectacle and the experience of spectatorship. In other words, this film’s ambiguity is as much at the level of vision as it is of thematic experience. The postcard-perfect images of vineyards and old churches have become the particular gaudy chaos of Tokyo: spectacle of modern production extraordinaire. Characters and audience alike, we’re all observers and participants in the drama — much like Takashi’s elderly neighbor who appears unexpectedly at the end of the film. Surely Kiarostami’s nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (“we’ve become a race of peeping Toms”), this character leads a life of watching at the bottom of the bricked alleyway beneath Takashi’s house. Although she’s given up on her chances of wedding Takashi and lives alone with her disabled brother, she takes keen pleasure in observing the professor’s comings and goings. When Takashi brings Akiko to the apartment a second time after the fight with Noriaki, we see the two getting out of the car from the neighbor’s perspective, blurred through her thin curtains. Like Noriaki but without any verbal cues, she takes Akiko for Takashi’s granddaughter. The grandfather-granddaughter relationship now becomes more than a convenient narrative fiction intended to throw Noriaki off Akiko’s track: observable by the neighbor (and by the audience) through the window and through Kiarostami’s camera, it is closer to truth, at least for a while.
And while Kiarostami’s signature cinema of the car ride is pleasurable in itself, as ever — Kiarostami’s drivers know exactly the right speed at which to drive, slowly enough that the colors and angles and arcs of the urban landscape cohere pleasantly; quickly enough to preserve the nose-against-the-window nostalgia of watching the world slide by — in Like Someone in Love the window ceases to be transparent, ceases to serve only as the frame through which the city is seen. Kiarostami explains in a 2012 New York Film Festival interview:
What I find interesting in reflections, is when shooting from the exterior of the car while focusing on the characters’ faces, for us not to see only the characters’ faces, but using the windshield to see what’s going on around. It’s an element of atmosphere, thanks to the reflections, rather than just using the [windshield] as an obstacle to the faces.
The pimp in the plate-glass window of the café; the slogans of billboards and storefronts in English and Japanese superimposed in bright blue and red and yellow over Akiko’s face in the taxi; and a particularly beautiful scene after Akiko’s night with Takashi, as he drives her over deserted expressways to the university for her exam — she’s sleeping, again, but over her in the window this time isn’t the nighttime city but deserted overpasses and underpasses, trees, clouds in the early-morning sky: each scene like this is a visual delight. In each, the windshield is there to reflect and distort.
While Certified Copy’s camera escapes out the open window ostensibly beyond the questions of representation, mediation, and the “reality” of the image, Like Someone in Love dwells in them. The windshield — a suggestive metaphor for the screen itself — becomes a creative space as well as an artificial one, a space of illusion and spectacle but also this film’s means of innovation and revelation. We’re aware that we’re watching through a glass — through a glass on a screen — and yet each glass provides a peculiar sort of intimacy and an invitation to keep watching. The space of the window is the space of “looking like”: the necessary illusion for the fiction of this relationship. Does the end of the film begin to seem inevitable? That is, if the pane of glass enables the illusion — the substance and the joy of this cinema — what lies before or behind it, its original, the “truth” of these enigmatic characters? One suspects that the answer is not as important as the experience of having watched. The pleasure of the spectacle is also belief in the spectacle, the desire to explore and expand the space of spectacle.
Kiarostami isn’t the only recent artist to take up the role that belief in spectacular illusion might play for us now. Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, published in English in 2011, is also set in Tokyo, but the point of comparison between the movie and the book lies not in topography or cultural similarity but in the possibilities each offers for living in the spectacle. Ella Fitzgerald sings for both: not only “like someone in love,” but also, in “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” from which Murakami takes his epigraph:
It’s a Barnum and Bailey world,
Just as phony as it can be,
But it wouldn’t be make believe
If you believed in me.
By now, the postmodern mantra that all is simulation, nothing authentic, is familiar enough. Kiarostami calls cinema a universal language; the statement is more than a platitude about the accessibility of the image or the medium at large. Instead, this universality comes from the realization that we’re all watching. In Iran as in Tokyo as in New York City, there’s no escaping the mediated nature of just about everything. Where’s a work of art to go from here if it wants to engage with this sort of thinking but not to relinquish all documentary or dramatic impulses in favor of a more pervasive skepticism? For Kiarostami, this is a starting point rather than a dilemma. Kiarostami’s dramatizes the spectator’s position in a global community of spectators, quietly making felt — almost as if you’d been in a radically expanded version of Cage’s 4’33” —the presence of that community. But instead of silence, the space Kiarostami directs is still filled with the narratives of history and culture, with political exploration and exposition, with familial dramas and love stories. The belief in illusion becomes the condition of and the possibility for relation — at least at the movies.