Like Someone in Love
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
"Like Someone in Love", the jazz standard that Abbas Kiarostami's new film takes its name from, is the kind of love song that can easily qualify as a song about insanity, depending on how cynical you're feeling. Romantic types hearing Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of the tune might focus on the lyrical mentions of star-gazing and guitar-playing. Other listeners might point to the suggestions of auditory hallucinations, fainting spells, and collisions with furniture.
With its adoring embrace of Tokyo neon and torch songs, the latest from the renowned Iranian director looks and sounds like a movie for the former listener, but this off-kilter story about love ends up playing even darker than the latter might hope for. Another retro-pop precedent that comes to mind is The Crystals' "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)" — if you get swept up in the film's sensory joy, which envelops you not unlike a Phil Spector "wall of sound," you might miss a strikingly gloomy view of human nature.
The tone is set right from the first shot of a glamorous, crowded Tokyo bar. We hear, but don't see, a woman on the phone attempting to convince a jealous boyfriend that she's not lying about where she is. She sounds earnest enough, but as Kiarostami is undoubtedly aware, it's hard to trust someone that you can't look in the eye. The scene that follows is the essence of cinematic simplicity, alternating between two angles in that bar, but in this calm Kiarostami finds ways to repeatedly upend your perception of what's happening.
Your sympathy at first lies squarely with the woman, Akiko (revealed eventually as actress/model Rin Takanashi), forced to put up with her boyfriend's paranoid demands (like counting the bathroom floor tiles so he can confirm the number later). That feeling is complicated when it becomes clear the girl is working nights as an escort to help pay for her college tuition. And it's complicated more still when we see from the girl's interaction with her eerily polite pimp that if she entered that sideline willingly, she certainly doesn't seem willing now.
There's the flavor of pulp tropes to this setup, which doesn't go away when Akiko is sent to the apartment of a kindly professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), the proverbial golden-hearted hooker meeting with a lonely, chivalrous soul. But again Kiarostami is intent on keeping you disoriented. If the pair seem to bond — platonically, despite the seduction-ready jazz and a home-cooked meal (which Takashi really ordered from the take-out place downstairs) – they end up dragging each other deeper into their respective predicaments.
What follows is a game of true and false identities — Takashi gets mistaken as a grandfather, Akiko gets recognized from an escort ad, and the boyfriend Noriaki (twitchy Japanese star Ryo Kase) hints at worrying income streams beyond his garage-owner façade. The characters seem caught somewhere between a noir and a light farce, and Kiarostami suggests that the difference between the two is largely a matter of economic choice and consequences. Those scratching by in a criminal economy depend on deception and disorientation as necessities — woe to the wealthy interloper diving into that game out of mischievous curiosity.
This may sound plot-heavy on paper, but Kiarostami is as devoted to cinematic minimalism as he is to intellectual gamesmanship. The allure of his images aside (particularly his fetish for lights and scenery glancing off car windows and obscuring passenger faces), he's more interested in capturing realistic textures of life than in dramatic emphasis. He's a director you have to meet halfway. It's easy to not think much of the ominous hints subtly delivered here — Noriaki noting "When my buddies are in need, they come see me" or the regular at his garage explaining to the sociology professor that "Violence in society interests me" — until they pay off.
And with Kiarostami, style is as important as content. His 2010 triumph Certified Copy, with Juliette Binoche in the lush open air of Tuscany, was centered on unreserved emotions (true or false) spilling forth. This film of metropolitan cramped-quarters is in part about repression, societal and personal. And as that opening scene suggests, the sound design is crucial. Raw emotion — a girl's shouted defiance, a grandmother's heartfelt voicemails, a man's unhinged screams — is heard and not seen in this film, shunted away outside the frame. That is, until the force of that emotion causes the boundaries containing it to give way or, in the case of the film's startling, abrupt ending, shatter.
Everything circles back to that title, with its characters fulfilling different permutations of that four-word phrase. Akiko is paid to pretend she's like someone in love and Takashi chooses to play-act paternal love, but Noriaki is really and truly in love, whatever else he also might be — and in the universe of this film, that makes him dangerously revolutionary.