The first shot of Like Someone In Love, a static, deep-focus, and angled composition of a cramped Tokyo café where the accompanying soundtrack, not the image, generates a sense of spatial geography, neatly summarizes Abbas Kiarostami’s Bressonian aesthetic. It’s even slightly playful: As the unadorned mise-en-scène gives no indication of whose voice fills the soundtrack, one’s attention gradually turns to the back of a woman’s head as she holds a phone to her ear, only for her to face the camera and reveal she’s not speaking. Such light touches generally don’t extend to the rest of the movie, in which the talking woman, prostitute Akiko (Rin Takanashi), heads out of Tokyo on assignment to a special client.
Akiko’s john is an elderly professor, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), who welcomes her less as an escort than a granddaughter, offering her food, letting her fall asleep on his bed unmolested, even driving her around the next day as Akiko subconsciously adjusts to his behavior. Their familial rapport reflects a key component of Kiarostami’s output, that of ever-shifting planes of identity and self-awareness. The director’s films follow from the assumption that if the Self is defined against the Other, then the Self must necessarily be a nebulous concept reliant on what it opposes. It’s heady material, but Kiarostami usually handles it with easygoing humor and an eye for concrete, immediate details over abstract intellectual quandaries.
This film, however, feels altogether darker. Not since Close-Up has the director foregrounded the role of deception in the changeling nature of his characters’ identities, and Like Someone In Love lacks the mitigating factor of Hossain Sabzian’s benign fibbing. “I’m not lying,” Akiko says as she lies to her boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryô Kase), over the phone in the film’s first shot, and that sets a precedent for the rest of the film. Deceit finds its way into nearly everything in the film, such as Takashi buying some soup and pretending he made it himself for Akiko, or then posing as her grandfather when Noriaki intrudes upon the two, suspicious.
Akiko and Takashi’s entire relationship appears to be founded on respective lies of omission, her looking for a surrogate to atone for the neglect of her grandmother, he using her to fill the hole left by a granddaughter she resembles. This subtext adds a desperation to the characters that twists the tone of otherwise calm shots. Kiarostami’s penchant for languid, narrowly focused scenes, usually set in cars, typically allows for patient observation in subtle shifts in body language, but here those same setups primarily ratchet up tension. Take the devastating scene of Akiko listening to a series of messages from her visiting grandmother, each sounding sadder about her dwindling chances of seeing her grandchild, then seeing the woman standing out in front of the train station to return home, waiting in vain until the last second. Later, a scene of Takashi and Akiko riding with Noriaki as the latter dominates the ride with his possessive, romantically reactionary talk generates suspense as the longer he stays with his girlfriend and the old man, the more likely he is to discover how they really know each other.
But the prevailing mood of the film is tragic, a direct result of Akiko’s detached sense of belonging. “Not a day goes by that I’m not told I look like someone,” she tells Takashi. She’s told she looks like her mother, the mother of Takashi’s granddaughter, and even, perversely, herself, when both Noriaki and her grandmother note the uncanny resemblance she shares with a model on call-girl ads plastered around town. And in true Kiarostami fashion, Akiko’s on-screen identity struggle may match one behind the camera. Akiko also looks like a woman in an old portrait hanging in Takashi’s apartment, a painting the professor explains was the first Japanese painting done in a Western style.
It’s a fitting metaphor for a Japan-set film with an English title, made by an Iranian with French money. Kiarostami originally conceived of the film 15 years ago, but it now seems primed to explore his artistic displacement as he’s forced to create outside his repressive home country. The insolubility of his own sense of creative identity may contribute to the violent break that concludes the film as much as the boiled-over tensions of the characters’ unsure selves. Whatever the circumstances of the director’s productions moving forward, however, Like Someone In Love is unmistakably a Kiarostami film, and he continues to craft some of the most challenging, invigorating work of his career as an artistic ex-pat.
As with Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami shot Like Someone In Love with RED cameras, and Criterion’s disc flawlessly reproduces its gorgeous image. Everything looks perfect: the slightly dimmed neon glimpsed through tinted cab windows; the washed-out daylight shots that take on an almost clinical nature; and the extreme detail of faces that require every pixel to bring out the subtle shifts of body language that reinforce and give away ruses. Audio tracks tend to be referred to as "reference quality" for loud, bombastic tracks filled with explosions, gunshots, and unsubtle orchestration, but this disc’s 3.0 surround audio deserves equal placement among blockbuster discs, its subtle but enveloping sound a more nuanced test of your speakers’ dynamics.
Besides a trailer, the only feature is a 45-minute making-of documentary. But when those 45 minutes consist of Kiarostami explaining his thought process in thorough detail, it’s hard to see the disc’s supplements as paltry. For someone who makes such beguiling, interpretive films, the director is remarkably candid about his working method. And given Kiarostami’s self-reflexivity, the behind-the-scenes footage of set construction and costuming feel like a part of the film proper more than most EPK material. The doc contains many interesting tidbits, like Kiarostami indulging in his deception behind the camera by lying to an actor to get the performance he wanted. The highlight is an extended tribute to art director Isomi Toshihiro, with Kiarostami calling attention to the extreme specificity of the crew member’s work, done with full knowledge that his details would be invisible. To hear the director talk about Isomi finding a coffee brand only available in Takashi’s region, or to see the professor’s Heidegger translation written out by hand to match the character’s aged aversion to computers makes the film that much more tactile, even as it introduces a kind of pre-digital Uncanny Valley effect that only further complicates this dense film. The disc’s booklet also comes with an essay by Nico Baumbach.
Abbas Kiarostami’s latest comes to Criterion as perhaps the most elegant reference disc ever made.