Abbas Kiarostami is going to make you work for it a little bit.
Never boring, his movies can seem, for a time, aimless. This is bluntly contradicted by the principal image I associate with all of his films - people in a car, driving. His films Ten, Life, And Nothing More and Taste of Cherry are, at least in my memory, 95% set in an automobile's interior, the characters headed somewhere even if the film appears not to be.
His last picture, Certified Copy, his first outside of his native Iran, pulled the car over to explore an ancient North Italian village, and this specificity of place, one of the few times Kiarostami put a fixed location front and center, exploded all reasonably acceptable concepts of linear narrative. Certified Copy is either a stranger time travel trip than Looper or it's a meet-cute romance of two would-be lovers engaged in a no-flinching game of role playing chicken. But that's only if you decide to take the film literally, not as a pastiche of adult relationships seen through the jaundiced eye of those who have taken all the sun-drenched piazza tours they can handle.
Like Someone In Love offers far less to worry about, once you get a handle on who the characters are. This takes about half the running time of the film, however, and it seems a bit unfair to deny you the pleasure of figuring it out for yourself. But here it is in broad strokes. Our “lead,” as it were, is a young woman originally from the hinterlands, now in Tokyo and working as a call girl. (Yes, this is a movie set in Japan with a Japanese cast, from an Iranian writer-director and French producers.) Her John for the night is a kindly old man, a scholar, who seems to have doubts about his prurient interests. A third character shows up in the second half, her boyfriend, a tough guy mechanic who has suspicions about his girlfriend's loyalty. (And with good cause!) There's also a nosy neighbor who pops up for comedy's sake, then echoes the sadness that permeates the entire movie.
And it is a slow movie. There are really only a handful of scenes, so you'll get to know each of the locations (a bar, the old man's apartment, the interiors of cars) quite well.
For a movie where one could say “nothing happens” (if one were to talk this way) there is an awful lot of tension. For starters, everyone seems to make their entrance at just the wrong moment. When the young woman (escorted by a somewhat annoyed cab driver) shows up at the apartment the phone starts ringing. The old man, who in addition to being an author and lecturer is apparently a translator, just can't get a client off the line. Indeed, the film climaxes with a cacophony of doorbells and microwave beeps and other exterior noises that literally shatter the illusion of domestic tranquility.
The first line of the film, spoken off camera, is that of the young woman shouting “I'm not lying to you!” to her boyfriend over the phone. It is, of course, a lie (she's not where she claims to be) and while the rest of the film continues to peel the onion back on all of these deceptive characters, it is (at least I think) the only time when a character actually flatly lies to another.
Later in the film the boyfriend (and the neighbor) mistake the call girl for the old man's granddaughter, and while they never correct them, they don't instigate the lie. Like Someone In Love is all about letting you drift along with your own hazy understanding until, eventually, the light bulb goes off. Above all else, this tone – this sense of almost knowing just what the hell is going on, as if in a dream, is the movie's greatest achievement.
Listen: there's no lying here at Badass Digest. When I describe this place to people who don't know it, my summation is that it's the least phony site on the Internet. And that's why I have to tell you that, for a moment, for less than thirty seconds, I swear - I fell asleep during the screening of Like Someone In Love.
A philistine! you shout, and maneuver your mouse to click away. But give me a moment to frame this, and to help explain why my shift in consciousness only made me like the movie more.
First, the circumstances: the picture didn't start until 4 pm, I only had a late breakfast and it was really stinking cold in NYC. With the lights dimmed and the heat pumped, I'd've felt drowsy if I were at a Diamanda Galas concert. One scene – one of the long, quiet ones in a car – lost me for a second. While I was overcome by shame (the Japanese influence, perhaps) I brightened at what may have seemed like a non sequitur to everyone else in the room, but was an epiphany to me.
The old man, alone, drives to a red light and, in waiting, closes his eyes and falls asleep. In complete parallel to what I just did, his muscles relaxed, his breathing changed and he didn't wake up until the cars behind him started honking. (Okay, that part didn't happen to me.) But still. . .could it be that this most opaque of films was working on me in a . . .biological way?
I rarely read about films before I write about them but in this New York Times article about Kiarostami's decision to work in Japan I noticed this quote:
'I’ve always felt quite anxious for my Iranian films once they’re screened,' Mr. Kiarostami said. 'I felt that I was responsible for whatever was going on in the screen. Whereas for my last two films, even for the official screenings at Cannes or any festival, I was dozing off.'
Now I'm hardly recommending you pop an Ambien before you see this movie, but I think there's something to this. While others are scratching their heads about the central enigma in this film (namely, why tell such a simple, microscopic story in such an obfuscated manner?) I think Kiarostami is making great strides in getting down on film the inexplicable mixture of frustration and enlightenment that often comes with dreams.
Some movies tackle this in a much more obvious way. Lynch's Mulholland Drive is the most obvious and mainstream example. Certified Copy taps into the stream-of-consciousness logic, as well, but also has larger themes about authenticity, forgery and false masks. Like Someone In Love, while touching on how strangers can forge quick bonds and sacrifice to help one another (and certainly has its share of nice, cinematic moments,) makes its strongest mark, I feel, as a meta-narrative on how it changes your methodology of sussing out a film. We're conditioned to learn about characters in a certain way, and Kiarostami simply says, “Not this time.”
Don't fear the film, though - take the ride. It isn't all work, and it's actually even funny at times, I swear. I may prefer the Sarah Vaughan version of the title song to the Ella Fitzgerald one in the film, but, then again, that's just my take.