Mysterious Elegance of Kiarostami

Sudarshan Ramani

Higuchi Noriaki (Ryo Kase) in “Like Someone in Love”

“Lately I seem to walk as though I had wings
Bump into things like someone in love.”

– Johnny Burke (lyrics) and Jimmy van Heusen (music)

The title of Kiarostami’s film comes from a much beloved jazz standard, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the greatest titles in film history. All the more so since it precedes a film that lives up to the texture and ambiguity of that phrase, at once opaque and bland and at the other subtle and elusive in meaning. Kiarostami noted the change of the film’s title from the original (“The End”) and preferring the alternative because, to paraphrase his remarks, one experiences love only when they feel as if they are in love, suggesting that surfaces and illusions govern our invisible, inner drives as it does the visible world of cities, cars, places and people. In other words, it’s a subject that’s essentially cinematic, befitting the art that reveals the invisible by means of the visible.

The conflict between the visible and the invisible is expressed in the remarkable opening of the film, where the action is presented to us as a conversation that we hear but don’t see, slowly piecing together the characters and the relationship between them. What we see seems familiar and common, a nightclub like any nightclub in a city with nightclubs. We follow two girls, Nagisa and Akiko (Rin Takanashi) discussing the latter’s issues with her boyfriend. The conversation is interrupted because Nagisa keeps moving to a table to the left of the frame leaving a seat empty. A gentleman comes forward a little later and appears to take a seat but backs away because the table ahead of him is occupied. The digressive quality of the opening, the distractions and interruptions communicates a great deal about urban life than most movies devoted in full to the subject. Akiko hopes to visit her grandmother but is tasked by Hiroshi, the patron of the bar to visit a “client” who he says is close to him. This someone, we find out later, is an old Professor of sociology, an odd fit compared to “regulars”. Akiko at first inquires if he’s a politician. Hiroshi doesn’t give a straight answer, although my guess would be that like the police inspector in the garage scene halfway into the film, Hiroshi is a former student of the professor, now taken up a calling far from his vocation. A sign of the times, our economic crisis and the impossible student loans? Kiarostami doesn’t answer, nor do I need him to. Though in a film with characters who give dubious answers and falsify their impulses and natures, Hiroshi’s refusal to respond to the question is most noteworthy.

Akiko refuses to go and in the film’s second most “shocking” moment, (the first, is well obvious to everyone who has seen and will see the film), she shouts her refusal loudly, killing the mood at the cafe. This scene is shocking because we don’t see her shouting, we hear her as the rest of the denizens at the nightclub hear her and then we see her calming down as Hiroshi steps out and the camera slowly follows Akiko stepping out, tracing the reflections she passes through from inside the cafe to outside, a fairly elaborate shot in the film and its effect is delicate to observe, conveying our instinctive fascination with surfaces. Surfaces was the putative subject of Certified Copy and in this film, Kiarostami looks even deeper with the subject. Akiko listens to messages on the phone from her grandmother who notes the various “girls” which resemble Akiko, remnants from her career as a model for lurid drawings, all these girls are in different hairstyles.

At Professor Watanabe Takashi’s house, she instinctively compares herself first to the famous painting of a woman teaching the parrot and then to the portraits of the professor’s daughter and then his wife. Surfaces and illusions are often easier to grapple and adopt than with “the real self”, which may itself be nothing more than a collection of surfaces. Is Akiko after all, the girl in the cheesy photographs she modeled for, as seen in the still above? The photos which everybody agrees looks like her but  decide isn’t her? Is she defined by her life as an escort, making money to pay for her education? Or is she as she presents herself to Takashi, like the woman in the painting or like the photograph of the Professor’s daughter in her graduation outfit.

Kiarostami charts Akiko over the course of an extended period of something less than 48 hours. The simplicity of the plot, a love-triangle of sorts, to reduce it to its most basic level allows for many non-narrative digressions. That is if one wants to, when discussing Kiarostami, mark distinctions between narrative and non-narrative. While riding the taxi, Akiko hears her grandmother’s messages, her voice-over clashed against city life seen through car windows. She falls asleep along the way, distracted by a strange blonde-dyed man at a circular area in Tokyo. The only real ellipsis in the action is when she falls asleep at Takashi’s house, an event bridged by the only non-diegetic piece of music in the film’s action, which then cuts to Takashi dropping her to school in his Volvo SUV. The extended section which follows is centered on Takashi just as the opening was centered on Akiko. Much of the action is banal, and focused on the domestic. All of it makes the space hard and real. When Takashi enters his kitchen and places his supplies in the fridge, the action has real weight which only makes the finale all the more devastating. Along with the nightclub, Takashi’s house is the only space which we don’t see from inside the car, everything else is kept out, the university and especially the strange garage scene, where Akiko’s boyfriend and self-claiming fiancee Higuchi Noriaki (Ryo Kase) takes over and offers to fix the driver belt of Volvo which he claims isn’t working but in this film we must doubt everything.The key moment is early in the film, when Takashi and Higuchi discuss experience. Higuchi wonders if experience involves “swallowing lies” while Takashi corrects him by telling him that experience involves not asking questions when one knows that they will only be lied to.

Kiarostami’s fiilms are among the most enigmatic films in contemporary for cinema for nearly 20 years now and with Like Someone in Love, he seems to be more mysterious than ever. “Like Someone in Love” is a film that leaves most viewers looking for an august Kiarostami masterpiece feeling confused because Kiarostami is more interested in newer challenges and powerful questions about our civilization at this moment in our planet when everything, including hope seems to be suspended and on wait.

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