Oct 11, 2012

NYFF 2012: Like Someone in Love

Abbas Kiarostami is back to form in this jewel of a movie set in Japan. This is the second film he makes outside of Iran. His last, Certified Copy, with Juliette Binoche, felt like a clunky conceptual exercise. But Like Someone in Love is much more accomplished and heartfelt. The movie starts with a 14-minute scene in a bar in Tokio, in classic Kiarostami style. We hear a conversation, we don't quite see who's talking, but we have plenty of time to immerse ourselves in the milieu and find out who the movie is about. A young woman is protesting to her jealous boyfriend on the phone that she is with a friend. She is not lying. The friend is there, yet at another table. Through different clues, we discover that she's a young call girl and her pimp (a man who has been hovering in the background, talking to customers), asks her to go see a special client on the outskirts of town. She doesn't want to go. She claims her grandmother is in town and she has to study for her exams, which he dismisses as lame excuses. She wants him to send her friend, who is more feisty and seems more used to the line of work, but he insists it has to be her. She screams at him, but she ends up obeying. He puts her in a cab and off she goes. We get a glimpse of Tokio at night from her point of view, but Kiarostami focuses on her crushing sadness as she listens to several long messages her grandma has left her, trying to get to see her. She is there for the day and her train leaves at 10:30. It's not too late, so the girl asks the driver to drive by the station, where she sees her grandma waiting outside, as she has done for hours, hoping to see her. But she doesn't stop. Kiarostami encapsulates the entire history of the girl (and a good chunk of Japanese culture) on this car ride. Her shame at seeing her grandma, who knows she is a college student, but not a call girl, the fact that she comes from a small town, and she is not like the other small town girls who stayed put and are getting married, according to granny's gossip on the answering machine. It is the height of simplicity and great writing, and it is heartbreaking.
Her mystery customer turns out to be a courteous old man, a literature professor with a taste for Ella Fitzgerald. The movie is about how their random connection develops into a complex bond.
Surprisingly, the minute she arrives, she stops moping and turns on the charm and good manners that modern geishas are expected to have. But she seems sincere. She feels at ease with this man, who no doubt reminds her of her grandma, whom she brings up casually in conversation, as if talking about her could ease the pain of her avoidance. The professor has set an elegant table, made dinner and chilled some champagne. But she goes to the bedroom and undresses, off camera, alarming the old man, who wants to have a civilized evening first, and maybe even last. She falls asleep in his bed. He becomes entangled in this girl's life, with her jealous bully of a boyfriend. Like Someone In Love explores different kinds of love, from love for sale, to ancient unrequited love, to obsessive possessiveness, to filial love, to familiar duty and devotion. In the end, the lives of this unlikely couple intersect, crashing into each other. Kiarostami, working with the added challenge of an alien culture with a different language, is in complete command of his storytelling powers. The movie reminded me of the short stories of Anton Chekhov. It shares Chekhov's wise, poignant observation of people's troubles, a gentle humor but also great sadness. Everybody in the movie is somehow bruised and saved by love. The writing is superb, providing vast panoramas about people's lives in just a few strokes of dialogue. Kiarostami is the undisputed master of shooting inside a car. He makes it look fluid and effortless, and in his hands, the interior of a car becomes a perfect stage for human experience. Like Someone in Love is a tender, sharp, luminous film.

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