The camera, spare and uncompromising, regards a posh restaurant in Tokyo. There is no one in the center of the frame; all the diners are in the corners, so it’s unclear where to focus. Then there is one side of a conversation from a disembodied voice. Or is it? Looking around, it’s unclear whether the women in the shot match the overheard voice. This is the clinical opening of Abbas Kiarostami’s absorbing drama Like Someone in Love. It tells a story about lies and empathy, and while its style is unsettling, it grows more serene until its shocking final moments.
The woman speaking is Aikiko (Rin Takanashi) and she’s on the phone with her clingy boyfriend. She’s a high-end prostitute who caters to wealthy clients, and her pimp tells her to head to the suburbs for an important job. She protests at first – she wants to meet her grandmother, and has an exam the next day at her university – but the pimp is insistent, making it clear this client is important to him. He puts her in a cab, and later she meets Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), an elderly professor. The following morning, Takashi offers to drive Akiko to the university, where her boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase) is waiting. Takashi watches as Noriaki shrugs him off, and the young man strikes up a conversation with the old one, figuring he’s Akikio’s grandfather. Takashi does not correct his mistake.
With more formal daring than Certified Copy, Kiarostami last film, here he strips drama of nearly of its conventions and finds innovative ways to rebuild with what’s left. Rather than guiding the viewer into the character’s world, Kiarostami drops us right in without any context, so we’re forced to parse together what’s happening from little clues. The script does not explicitly state the pimp/prostitute relationship, for example, and it is unclear Takashi is the John when we first see him. For viewers with enough patience, this technique is absorbing because it’s like a puzzle. There is drama, humor, and even suspense if you focus more than you watch. The only traditionally cinematic Kiarostami employs is repetition: we listen to voicemails from Aikiko’s grandmother, each more heartbreaking than the last, and the sequence culminates with a quiet, devastating climax.
From the shot of the restaurant onward, Like Someone in Love has long takes from some maddening perspectives. In a typical movie, the camera would follow Aikiko into her unpleasant encounter with Noriaki, putting the viewer in the center of the action. Instead, the camera stays with Takashi’s view from the car (sometimes other students obstruct the view). This detachment from the drama is a little Michael Haneke’s, except Kiarostami has a different purpose. By cutting between Takashi’s face and his view, the filmmaker is forcing us to think about what he’s thinking. The empathy between the characters, or lack of it, is then richer so that compassion arrives with few autobiographical details.
The peculiarities of Like Someone in Love would be challenging for any actor, yet the three leads have a pleasant, “lived in” quality about them. I’m curious to what extent Kiarostami, who is from Iran but adopted France as his home, gave his actors a character biography. Either way, their work is effortlessly credible, as if the film is more documentary than fiction. Aikiko is the more passive character – she listens a lot, as her job is to obey the men around her – so the real growth happens with Takashi and Noriaki. The centerpiece is where the two men converse in a car over what’s best for Aikiko. Takashi does not lecture, nor does Noriaki yell, and they arrive at a satisfying conclusion in an elliptical way. And when she does return to the car, the subsequent dramatic tension is palpable because of Kiarostami’s rigorous style.
Long takes are sometimes found in with a loose pace, but Kiarostami’s editing is more tight and precise. Each take, no matter how long, has an edge to it that suggests uncommon control over the camera. This command is what forces us to look for clues and accept the unforced pace of these three lives. Like Someone in Love is brimming with seemingly banal realism, to the point where its central deceit (Takashi’s omitted lie) does not seem to matter. But in its brilliant final minutes, Kiarostami takes us out with his deliberate pacing and forces us reconsider how a little deception can have big consequences. Life is ordinary until we wish it wasn’t.