There’s a lot of driving around in the films of Abbas Kiarostami. The characters talk (or don’t talk) and take in their surroundings while reflections of the landscape (and themselves) slide up and down the windshield. The point — to put, admittedly, too fine a point on it — is that life is a house of mirrors, and identity fluid. Watching Kiarostami’s newest film Like Someone in Love, I thought of the 72-year-old Iranian director as a driver, too, a chauffeur who keeps a poker face and steady pace through all the hairpin curves and reversals. He has evolved into a magical guide — a trickster.
Like Someone in Love was made in Japan with an all-Japanese cast, but Kiarostami is so comfortable in this milieu that I’d have taken him for a native. I couldn’t have guessed his age, though. His gaze is young-old. Every detail is meticulous, but the characters chafe against their fates.
The movie centers on a young woman and an old man, but in Kiarostami’s works the center never holds. The first shot is amusingly off-kilter. We’re in a bar, the camera fastened on a young woman with artificial red hair and a short skirt, but the voice we hear is offscreen — it’s a woman lying over the phone about where she is to an apparently very jealous boyfriend. The speaker is Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a pretty ingenue, and the call leaves her brooding. An older man approaches and speaks to her in fatherly tones, advising her to be careful of her lover. Then he tells her to get to work. They argue: She has an exam the next day and her grandmother’s in town. It takes a long time to realize that she’s a call girl and he’s a pimp. They just don’t act the way pimps and call girls are supposed to act.
No one does. A taxi drives Akiko past the station where her grandmother waits in vain to the apartment of an old professor (Tadashi Okuno), who doesn’t respond to her carnal overtures, her schoolgirlish playacting. He has made dinner — a soup from her home region, like the one made by the grandmother she left at the station. The thought of that soup distresses her: She wants to get on with the fucking. He doesn’t — maybe he has no intention of fucking her. Akiko looks a bit like the daughter we see in photos. Over the next twelve hours the three main characters — the scared call girl, the grandfatherly old man, the wildly jealous boyfriend (Ryo Case) — will come together in a unique triangle. They will find a kind of harmony. And then they will lose it.
It’s odd in a film when you can’t imagine what the next shot is going to be, where a character’s “arc” is going to leave him or her, whether you’re watching a drama or a tragedy. The voice that you hear offscreen might prove — in a reverse shot — to belong to someone who looks much different than you’d have guessed. Like Someone in Love has rather simple, sentimental, melodramatic underpinnings, but the vantage changes everything. It opens up this world — and the next. It’s an enthralling journey.