Sometimes a director transplanted to another culture might lose his identity but Abbas Kiarostomi does very well in Like Someone in Love, his study of fantasies and miscalculations shot in Japan. Notably, he combines an inexperienced actor and a real pro with a third principal who never played a lead in decades as an extra, and the effect is thoroughly fascinating. Like Someone — the Ella Fitzgerald standard — but nobody really in love, here. What we have is three people, at least one of whom is being taken for a ride. If you see this as alternate couples, maybe there’s a link with the director’s previous prizewinner, Certified Copy. Both films are about people who are not what the seem. But this new one doesn’t have the Mediterranean gloss, pretty settings and enjoyable intellectual identity puzzle. No Pirandello here, only a girl, a student from the country who moonlights as an escort, spending an apparently platonic evening with an old man, and a young man who thinks he’s her fiancé, or who is, but is unaware of her side job, and when he finds out about it, enraged. This is a rueful look at humanity’s foibles and follies, not a pretty puzzler. It has less audience appeal. It shows Kiarostami as a master of the car scenes he loves to do and of bland, repetitive dialogue, but despite the mark of the director’s style and polished execution, it’s a bit difficult to ferret out a point here, in part because of the shallowness with which the characters are presented.
When the film begins Akikio, the student/escort (Rin Takanashi), is talking to someone in a little nightclub. It’s Nagisa (Reiko Mori), her boyfriend, but we don’t know that yet and we don’t even know at first who’s talkng. Kiarostami playfully withholds information and keeps the viewer at one remove from the characters. She is here to receive her assignment, which is to see retired sociology professor Takashi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno). On the long cab ride, she listens to her phone messages. These consist mainly of a series of progressively more sad calls from her sweet country grandmother, who has come to town to see her, but only for the day, and at the end is about to take the train home after ten p.m. After the last message, when grandma reports she is still sitting near a gate waiting, Akiko has the cabbie circle the station. A pointed irony is that in the station grandma has seen one of the little flyers Akiko put around on her first forays in the escort business, and it says “Akiko” and has her picture, but grandma innocently says it’s just a coincidence, and can’t be her. This flyer comes up later, because one of the workers in Nagisa’s garage has shown it to him.
When Akiko gets to the professor’s, he wants to entertain her rather than have sex, though she goes to bed, after a conversation about a painting — and she’s very tired and just wants to sleep. The two are totally at cross purposes. The next morning Watanabe offers to drive Akiko anywhere she wants to go, obviously eager to spend more time with her, and she has him chauffeur her to an exam at school. There she runs into Nagisa, who’s angry, it turns out because she hasn’t answered her cell all night – doubtless a frequent occurrence. Nagisa sees Watanabe, and eventually gets into his car and has a conversation about Akiko; he assumes Watanabe is her grandfather. Watanabe keeps his identity vague, but advises Nagisa not to marry Akiko, but merely to enjoy her — while she lasts, as it were.
We are to think that probably Nagisa’s time at his garage with the chap who has the flyer and a frank chat with Akiko when they meet afterward for lunch leads to a fracas, and Akiko summons Watanabe from his flat to pick her up, nursing a swollen jaw, shaken, and shortly pursued by a furious Nagisa, whom, however, we hear but do not see again.
This little tale with its slow revelations to us and to the characters (or Nagisa, anyway) is done with much subtlety, but it also has a chilly, pointless quality, and again leads this reviewer to say yes, Abbas Kiarostami is a master, but of what? and what does it matter, if this is all? This film is intricate and clever, but also somehow inconsequential. Like other Kiarostami films, it is a short-short story on acid, its tiny details blown up and drawn out.
There’s no faulting the craft here, the elegant night photography, the skill with which the intimacy (and loneliness) of a car interior is exploited, and the acting. Tadashi is pretty , and in Japanese style, maddeningly tempting and aloof. Okuno is the long-time movie extra, who was tricked into playing a starring role by not revealing the extent of his performance. Probably no one else could have been better, more humble and natural, as this sweet, befuddled old man. Kase, a veteran of many roles, is strong in the only role that requires strength, because Nagisa has values, hopes, and desires and the will to see them through — though while he thinks Akiko is naive (one of Kiarostami’s many little ironies), he is the one who’s been tricked.
Like Someone in Love, in Japanese, 109min, debuted at Cannes; had a theatrical release in Japan Sept. 15; debuted Oct. 4 in the US at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review; opens in France Oct. 15.
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Stars: Ryo Kase, Rin Takanashi, Denden
Runtime: 109 min
Country: France, Japan