As the Q&A that followed the press screening for his latest feature, Like Someone In Love, began to wind down, director Abbas Kiarostami told us that one of the reasons he came to New York to present the movie was to see off his friend, Richard Peña, who was presiding over the New York Film Festival for the last time as the Film Society’s Program Director. A black belt in the art of holding court over such Q&As, even through a translator, Kiarostami was also reminded—and reminded us, the journalists—that in New York there’s a continuity between the “old guard” of cinephile authority that helped establish him as far back as the 1970s and ’80s, as well as a newer, younger generation, who would make their acquaintance with his body of work, thanks to films such as Certified Copy and Like Someone In Love.
Whether you’re a newcomer to Kiarostami, or an old hand, when you see a new movie like Shirin, Certified Copy, or Like Someone In Love, odds are very strong that Kiarostami’s knack for reinventing what he’s doing from one project to the next will require from you a high degree of flexibility and openness. For many people who saw Like Someone In Love at Cannes, in New York, or elsewhere, it can be a tricky proposition to differentiate between the thrill of Kiarostami’s art and the perplexing, convulsive narrative that some have taken as confrontational. A wide array of readjustments, even from what Certified Copy hinted was a “new Kiarostami” of deceptively art-house-friendly fare, mark Like Someone In Love as yet another seismic shift. There’s an entirely new country (Japan), a frank treatment of sex (and the sex trade), and the “x” factor, a final turn across a blind alley of fear and menace that, on a technical level, feels more like something out of No Country for Old Men, rather than the work of someone who made ABC Africa. In short, even if you know well enough to expect the unexpected, you may yet be thrown for a loop.
It’s well known that you’re an admirer of Yasujirô Ozu, and Ozu, in turn, was an admirer of Mikio Naruse, and some of Ozu’s darker films from the 1950s were influenced by Naruse’s Floating Clouds...
I don’t know about Naruse. But I’d like to know more. What can you tell me about him?
He worked around the same timeframe, from the silent era, he passed away in the late ’60s. I would love to speak for hours about him, but I don’t think the other interviewers would appreciate that too much. [The others laugh as I hand Kiarostami a copy of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.]
It may be I’ve never known him, or I’ve forgotten if I’ve seen what he’s done. I’ll go and check.
I don’t believe Ozu ever had “troubled youths” in his films—violent, angry, unstable youths. Yet a lot of other Japanese films from the same period had them, especially crime films, and I’m wondering if there was another source of inspiration, other than Ozu, that you could talk about.
No, I conceived him [the youth Noriaki, played by Ryô Kase] as a universal character. I first created him, and then I checked with my Japanese partners if it made sense in Japan to have a character like this. The young actress [Rin Takanashi] who has Akiko’s role, especially, I remember when she read the script, she said, “Oh, he’s exactly like my former boyfriend. I was with a boy like him, and I dropped him a couple of months ago, and now I’ve been alone ever since.” So, as long as I knew it made sense in Japan, I kept him. But I didn’t conceive him as a Japanese character.
While it’s true that I admire Ozu, and in my films there are some aspects, some details that can remind you of Ozu, or even have a character—like the character of the old man—who can be related to Ozu’s world, that’s all there is. The film was shot in Japan in 2011, so it has to be contemporary. You can’t relate more than this to Ozu’s world. And I must say about violence, that today’s Japanese films are far more violent than this one, they are so violent that they don’t work on me anymore. My film compared to these others, it’s very peaceful.
I wanted to follow up on something you said after the press screening about risks in filmmaking, the risk of misunderstanding, and the risks you enjoy taking in your films, and finally, which filmmakers, living or dead, take risks that you really appreciate?
I guess that what I meant by risk was not that risks were taken, but the mere fact of making films like this today, which are really the opposite of the general trend, and the habits that are taken by everyone, by directors and producers—and audiences, of one kind of formatted films that we are used to seeing. So just getting out of this habit and out of this usual way of making and watching films is risky in itself, so I think risk is the essence of my work, or my work is by essence risky. And nowadays, I think it’s not only in my case, generally speaking. All over the world this kind of work is risky because you’re not sure if you’ll find your audience.
As to when you were asking me to quote names, I usually don’t do that because I’m always scared of skipping names, then feeling guilty afterward. But if I quote someone like Bresson, it’s not even that he was a risk-taker as a person. It’s just that his way of seeing cinema, the cinema that he proposed, was a redefinition of cinema—by essence. And so they, people like him, and also Tarkovsky, they reach another truth of cinema which redefines the art form itself. And so if you have someone making films today that don’t go in the general trend of films becoming nothing but games is taking a risk, because what’s at stake is the survival of their art.
Games, video games? Or…
[Shaking his head “No”] You might say a risk is when what’s at stake is either to lose your capital, or win 10 times more, whereas here in the film industry, you might lose the minimum personal capital involved, but there’s no chance of winning anything.
With regard to the soundtrack, were you part of the process of picking the songs? To me it seemed like you already knew what songs you’d use through your writing process, and I wanted to know if that was true, or if that occurred toward the end of the process.
It came quite late in the process; it came with the title first. I remember that I thought of this title, and it rang a bell. I was almost sure that it was a jazz classic, and I went to check that I had the sound that went with the title, and I chose it because I felt that it was really appropriate. The only music that I knew I would use was just some ambient music. But after that, the jazz pieces I chose were really like definitions of the character of the old man; it was quite appropriate to his generation. Which is also coincidental with the film period we were referring to—the time when these kinds of films were made, this kind of narrative would exist, that this man belongs to. So the jazz in the film belongs to the same frame of reference.