Like Someone In Love is the new film from Abbas Kiarostami, a mannered yet experimental work, the effect of which is tellingly represented in the varying critical responses. As is widely reported, the film’s screening at last year’s Cannes Film Festival was less than complementary for the film and many of the reviews that followed seemed incomplete, as if the critics needed to see the film a second time, and in more hospitable surroundings, to fully appraise the film’s strengths and/or weaknesses. The film’s recent release has resulted in some critical reassessment.
The story is slight and is mainly utilised as a starting point for ruminations on identity and deception. Just like some of Kiarostami’s other films, the plot of Like Someone In Love can be summarized with a high degree of accuracy with one sentence – “A man wishes to die and searches for someone to assist him” (A Taste of Cherry) or “A female taxi driver and her fairs discuss life” (Ten). Like Someone In Love is about a female prostitute Akiko (Takanashi Rin) meeting a client, the elderly Watanabe (Okuno Tadashi), while dealing with a possessive boyfriend Noriaki (Kase Ryo).
The film is primarily interested in the mutability of the characters’ identities as they move through a variety of meetings and situations. The issues that the film raises are much the same as those in Kiarostami’s previous film, the somewhat avant garde-lite Certified Copy, although here they are treated much more concretely and more successfully. Essentially the film suggests that we are never the same with different people and that we never truly know ourselves, which means that our identities are constantly shifting. This is represented in an initially funny, playful way as each character must deceive others concerning their relationships and the film addresses this deception in many different forms.
When Akiko visits the obviously shy and awkward Watanabe (we never get any indication that he is the sort of man who would frequently or even casually use the services of a prostitute), she expresses interest in a painting (the first painting to treat a typically Japanese subject in a Western style) in order to bring him out of his shell. What seems like a nice, casual conversation becomes slightly darker and more aloof when one considers that Akiko is performing, that she is pretending to have a familiarity with the painting in order to do her job more effectively. The characters are frequently placed in such positions during which the audience is left unsure about their true motivations. Later, Watanabe will pretend to be Akiko’s grandfather so that Noriaki will not suspect her and yet, later, will bluntly tell him that he is not her grandfather. Noriaki seems to catch on but does not react, instantly (as if as by a defence mechanism) morphing from Akiko’s boyfriend into a mechanic – his profession – spotting the sound of a clapped-out car belt.
Kiarostami’s most experimental move also highlights this idea of the mutable, unfixed identity with the beginning of the film. The film begins in the middle of a scene. We hear a conversation but we do not know what is being discussed and by who. We are in a nightclub busy with customers, but we are initially unsure about what relation what we are seeing has with what we are hearing. It is a fascinating beginning – eloquent as much of the film’s central theme concerning identity as of the audience’s apparent need for a clear-cut relationship with the characters and events on the screen. We stare at the screen, trying desperately to decipher it so that it will make more sense, absolutely incapable of merely accepting that we are not yet meant to know. The film’s ending is similar, finishing sharply where there would appear to be a lot more of the story yet to unfold – again representative both of the film’s concern with identity and deception and with our own need for closure and narrative completeness. This apparent beginning after the real beginning and ending before the real ending was what misdirected a lot of the early commentary on the film.
Kiarostami presents his theme with flair and a teasing ingenuity – one character, introduced late in the film, seems to be merely an annoyance until we unexpectedly hear more about her, at which point she becomes the most tragic and pitiable character of all. It is constantly developed throughout the film to such an extent, however, that the film may feel slightly contrived and one-note. However, the performances of the three leads make up for this. Takanashi Rin is fantastically unknowable, moving through a series of moods but never giving away which are genuine and which are more calculated. Okuno Tadashi is movingly vulnerable but sometimes equally deliberate. Kase Ryo is unlikeable until we meet him at which point he becomes sympathetic. When he again disappears he again becomes unlikeable as if his present and absent selves are different.
Like Someone In Love is one of those thoroughly rewarding examples of art cinema in that it improves the longer one is away from it. It is a film that requires an active mind to make sense of it and, ultimately, to put it all together and it is consistently worth the effort.
See also Certified Copy (2010)