Lolita in Japan
Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love
Imagine a jealous and angry lover; his childlike girlfriend who is secretly a call girl; and her newest client, an 80-year-old retired professor. Like Someone in Love brings together this unlikely mix of characters. The film is set in Tokyo but was written and directed by the renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who is apparently in difficulty with the authorities in Tehran and now working outside the country. His previous film, Certified Copy (2010), was made in Italy.
Kiarostami’s most celebrated Iranian film, Taste of Cherry (1997), produced conflicting reactions among discerning critics. It was awarded the Palme D’Or, but the late Roger Ebert gave it a decided thumbs down. Like Someone in Love has generated a similar response. Ian Buruma, who as a young man studied and worked in Japanese film, has proclaimed it “the best film ever made by a non-Japanese in Japan.” Lest anyone think this stinting praise, he adds, “It is a great movie tout court.” Yet Stanley Kauffmann believes Like Someone in Love is a failure and a betrayal of the films “rooted in Iranian culture and a love of it” that made Kiarostami famous.
Kiarostami’s earliest films embraced what critics describe as “earnest realism.” I take the earnestness to be a result of Kiarostami’s on-location depictions of the human condition. The films that earned him this reputation adopted the perspective of children in the villages of northern Iran.
This was partly by necessity. Kiarostami, who had begun his career under the Shah and the regime of Westernization, decided to stay on after the Islamic Revolution. The theocracy was hostile to cinema, and many film houses were burned to the ground during the revolution, one with hundreds of people still in it. Kiarostami and other directors had little financial support. They could not pay actors, work in studios, or deal with sexual or political themes. Shooting on location from the point of view of children, who need not be paid, made his work possible, avoided conflicts with the Islamic censors, and gave films such as his early Koker trilogy a more universal appeal—bleak but not existentially empty. Many Iranians saw Kiarostami as embracing the theocracy and its censorship regime.
But his poetic sensibility, painterly eye, and extraordinary artistic gifts—he began his career as a painter and is also a published poet—saved him from sentimentality and made his reputation among cinephiles outside of Iran. In their judgment, his body of work, particularly his films of the 1990s, is among the world’s best. However, much of what viewers saw as avant-garde innovation may also be seen as making a virtue of necessity: the mix of documentary-style footage with fiction, landscape filmed without actors, entire movies set in automobiles as they moves around Tehran, and actors improvising with little or no script or direction.
Iranian cineastes point to his film Ten (2002) as a landmark in Kiarostami’s career and an important commentary on the situation of women in Tehran. The film can be read in many ways: as stretching the boundary of avant-garde filmmaking, protesting the status of women, or adapting to limitations as one goes along. I think it is all of the above.
But Ten did not begin that way. Kiarostami’s art does not begin with a grand design that is then brought to fulfillment. As he unabashedly claims, “I don’t like to engage in telling stories.” Rather, to use Claude Lévi-Strauss’s term, Kiarostami is a bricolage artist who makes do with what he has and changes course as necessary. Kiarostami tells us that Ten started as a story about a psychologist who must meet clients in her car while her office is being remodeled. The audience would listen in on the intimate, private conversations of a therapist and her patients as they moved through the busy streets of Tehran. But Kiarostami soon abandoned the psychologist character, replacing her with a divorced woman speaking to various passengers. Most important are her son, who does a lot of complaining, and a prostitute. When Kiarostami could not hire an actual prostitute to play the role, he hired an actress, who is never seen. We only hear her voice as she tells her story. Two digital cameras mounted inside the car create a documentary feel.
Recently Kiarostami’s films have become more philosophical, and, judging by his latest two, he has taken to questioning conventional understandings of human relationships and exploring their mystery and morality.
Kiraostami’s characters are not struggling to survive; they are sophisticated, even decadent Westerners.
In Certified Copy his strategy for engaging the audience in this inquiry is to obscure the nature of the relationship between his characters. An English author comes to an Italian town on a book tour. He explains to his listeners his thesis, which holds that copies of works of art have value and that originals are in fact copies of something too. Elle (Juliette Binoche), an antiques dealer in the audience, has bought several of the author’s books and is eager for him to sign them. She offers to show him the sights of Tuscany. We don’t know if they’ve just struck up a casual acquaintance and might have an affair, or whether they were once married and divorced and are now getting back together for a fling. We have no idea what they owe each other or what they want from each other as they journey through the countryside.
The couple’s visit to a popular shrine thought to give newlyweds good luck brings Kiarostami’s questions about relationships to the surface. The faith in true love that young people evince as they have their pictures taken at the shrine contrasts sharply with the uncertainty and ambiguity of the middle-aged couple’s relationship. Kiarostami leaves the relationship questions unanswered. Viewers either left the theater pondering his questions or annoyed by them.
Clearly we are a long way from Kiarostami’s early work, and he is a long way from the villages of northern Iran. These characters are not struggling to survive; they are sophisticated, even decadent Westerners wondering what it all means. It is as though Kiarostami has left the theocratic world of Iran and entered the amoral Nabokovian West.
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Like Someone in Loveis, I think, Kiarostami’s version of Lolita, exploring the mystery and morality of the relationship between Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a Japanese call girl, and Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a retired professor, widower, and first-time client who is old enough to be her grandfather. Akiko is a college student by day, and no hardened sex worker. Quite the contrary, she is a confused, vulnerable young woman. She has come to Tokyo from a village in the hinterlands, and she distributes flyers with her picture and phone number to attract clients.
How much of this Tokyo sex landscape—flyers, pimps, and respected clients—represents Japan’s subculture of women serving men’s sexual wants and how much springs from Kiarostami’s imagination is difficult to tell. The first scene is full of his cinematic trademarks: the interiors of cars, stretches of documentary-like footage, reflections in windows, inventive diegetic sound, imaginative camera placement.
The film begins with a fixed camera looking into a café. We hear the ambient sounds of the place, and we hear Akiko’s voice, but she is not in the frame. Akiko is being questioned and berated on the phone by her would-be fiancé, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), who is the typical jealous, possessive man drawn to a woman of dubious repute. A type right out of Freud’s casebooks, he is simultaneously besotted with Akiko and preoccupied with the possibility of her infidelity. Noriaki has good reason to worry, yet he apparently does not know or does not want to believe that Akiko is a call girl. He wants to marry her. “I’m not lying to you,” Akiko whines. And of course she is. She moves into the frame and we watch her, still through the fixed camera, as she tries to deal with her abusive, threatening lover. Her pimp, a friendly older man, works out of this café. He has a special client for her that night, a man he respects: his former professor.
Akiko has even more on her plate than an angry boyfriend and a new client. Her grandmother has unexpectedly come to Tokyo and has been at the train station all day waiting for Akiko to meet her. The grandmother has seen one of Akiko’s flyers and is worried about her beloved granddaughter. Most of these complications become clear only in the course of the film. But for now the pimp steps outside the café to answer a phone call. We see his hazy image reflected in the window through which we see Akiko still seated at her table. Then the pimp’s reflection moves across the window until it envelops her.
Akiko reluctantly gets into a taxi, and we watch her as the sights and neon lights of Tokyo are reflected in the cab’s windows—another cinematic tour de force. On her cell phone, she plays pleading messages from her grandmother sent over the course of the day, now compressed into minutes. We see deeper into Akiko’s quandary. She is alone and adrift in the dangerous world of Tokyo. At her request the taxi drives past the train station, and we catch a glimpse of her grandmother still waiting in front of the statue, as promised in her last phone messages. Akiko shrinks back into her seat.
When she arrives at her new client’s apartment, it is, to say the least, a tense meeting. Takashi, the professor, is preparing for an erotic adventure backed by the music of his youth, Ella Fitzgerald’s dulcet jazz version of “Like Someone in Love.” He intends to serve her dinner and wine. He is obviously trying to set a mood familiar from his romantic past, but he does not know what he is getting into.
When Akiko finally comes out of her shell of awkwardness and embarrassment what emerges is a tired child who heads for the bedroom—we see only clothes flitting to the floor. When the professor looks in, Akiko seems already asleep. We do not know how the erotic adventure turned out, whether the client was served. Kiarostami cuts to the next morning when the professor, now behaving like a kindly grandfather with time on his hands, offers to drive Akiko back to her college.
There they are confronted by the enraged and bewildered Noriaki, who has been waiting for Akiko. The professor, with surprising aplomb and without actually lying, allows Noriaki to assume that he is Akiko’s grandfather. Intimidation becomes ingratiation, and soon Noriaki, who runs an automobile shop, is fixing the professor’s Volvo free of charge. The professor, aplomb intact, returns to his book-filled apartment in the suburbs. However, in his grandfatherly role he has told Akiko to call him if she is ever in trouble. It doesn’t take long before he hears from her.
Noriaki discovers that the professor was not Akiko’s grandfather and predictably beats his fiancée. She calls Takashi, who drives back into Tokyo to rescue her. Has he become her grandfather? Is the widower infatuated with the young woman who served his sexual wants? Has the lonely old man found a companion? Perhaps all of these: the mystery of relationships.
As the professor tends to Akiko’s bruised face, Noriaki comes up the stairs shouting. He pounds on the apartment door, interrupting the professor’s compassionate care. Having failed to gain entry, the enraged lover retreats to the street and creates a scene, screaming up at the professor’s window and accusing him of lying. In fact the professor never lied, and to our knowledge he may be innocent of the sexual encounter of which Noriaki accuses him. There is a brief moment of silence as the professor looks out the window hoping the coast is clear. Then again we hear the scream, “liar,” and a rock comes crashing through the window. The credits roll. We can suppose that however the professor imagined his relationship to Akiko, all that has changed. So, perhaps, has his peaceful existence as a retired scholar. But Kiarostami refuses to tell us how it all turns out. Like Someone in Love ends not with questions but with a take-it-or-leave-it demand that we finish the movie ourselves. I am not sure whether that is art or a failure of imagination.