Perfect Direction mired by Imperfect Narration

Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone In Love (2012) isn’t quite a “copy” of his 2010 masterpiece Certified Copy transposed to Tokyo—more like a warped reflection, or, to skew more sinister, a nihilistic joke based on that film. Like Certified Copy, it’s preoccupied with the notion of human life being composed of so many layers of artifice that it makes our identities, and our perception of the world, fluid. That fluidity is once again expressed visually by the transient settings of cars, their windows painted with sliding reflections that overlay the characters. And like that film, its camera clings close to two characters who relate to each other in shifting ways that subvert the audience’s expectations constantly. But this time around, Kiarostami seems not to know what to do with these thematic notions, ending up with a sometimes straining, sometimes intriguing curio of a film, whereas Certified Copy was a tightly coiled piece of narrative artistry.

Reading a summary of the simple plot, one might expect Kiarostami riffing on Lost In Translation (2002). Akiko (Rin Takanashi), an escort paying her way through college, is coaxed by her pimp into attending to a client instead of meeting her grandmother, who has come to Tokyo to see her. She abandons her familial obligation to meet her client Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), who turns out to be a paternal college professor who is easily as old as her grandmother. They form a ‘connection’ over the night and morning that follows, but it’s one that doesn’t follow the norms of this familiar pairing of old man and young woman. This is because, like the film itself, their relationship has no stability. One moment Akiko’s a giggling, sweet houseguest; in another she’s a bored and ineffectual escort who falls asleep despite her client’s pleas to join him for dinner; and by next morning the two begin to bemusedly play out the roles of grandfather and granddaughter as everyone from Takashi’s pesky neighbour to Akiko’s insanely jealous (and clueless) fiance Noriaki (Ryo Kase) mistake them as such. By the suddenly adrenalized conclusion, Akiko and Takashi have cornered themselves, with nothing but pretence upon pretence holding them together, an artifice of affection waiting to be shattered by the realities of their lives.

Like Someone In Love consistently displays the formalistic precision that also defined Certified Copy. It’s calmly and often beautifully shot with clear intent, once again showing us a city from inside cars in motion and stasis, using long takes, reflections and obstructions as elements of composition in telling ways. Take a scene in which Akiko sits in a cab with Tokyo scrolling by her in its neon profusion as she listens to her grandmother’s plaintive voicemails urging her to come meet her. It’s a lovely, lingering sequence, a perfect moment of lethargic melancholy that illustrates a character’s internal thought processes through the elements of the scene. Instead of being the granddaughter she actually is in flesh and blood, Akiko chooses at that moment to be the paid-for blank slate an escort must be to her client (the irony is that she ends up being a granddaughter by sunrise anyway), and this is acutely clear because of Kiarostami’s directorial choices.

But once the films starts created the impression of undirected narrative, with two characters simply blundering through a very awkward and strange social situation, the intentions of both characters and writer/director (Kiarostami takes on both duties) become confounding in their vagueness. Why does Akiko stay with Noriaki even though she’s so clearly tired of him? Why is Takashi risking his reputation by hiring an escort when he doesn’t even seem interested in sex? Is this the first time Takashi is hiring a prostitute? What happened to his wife? Is his complete lack of awareness while driving an indicator of some deeper selfishness or simply a sign of old age? Answers can be guessed or interpreted, of course, but there’s an odd flippancy to the film’s dismissal of such questions. It doesn’t feel like subtle storytelling, it feels an oblique lack of storytelling, which can become tedious. The characters’ ambiguities in Certified Copy sprung shifting stories that made sense, that deepened their sense of humanity, the feeling that they had lives that had happened or could have happened. We don’t get that in Like Someone In Love, which shows us characters who, despite admirable performances, feel deliberately flimsy.

The presence of wry humour throughout only deepens the sense that Kiarostami’s film is a joke about the inevitability of narrative entropy, about reality and artifice not mattering because it all ends as abruptly as it began (and the film does begin and end very abruptly). Death ends all stories, after all. Or perhaps it means nothing. Either way, it’s like the joke Akiko tells Takashi; she tells it without knowing why it’s funny, and Takashi laughs without finding it funny, because he’s been told it’s a joke. Just so, we’ve been told this is a movie, so we can only watch and wonder.