Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was one of the filmmakers who reshaped world cinema in the 1990s, creating a body of work that was both more static and more contemplative than his predecessors’. The main difference between Kiarostami and his contemporaries is that his films have tended to be chattier. They unfold like modest mysteries, as what initially seems mundane is revealed to be more meaningful, through what the characters have to say about it. That was one of the keys to Kiarostami’s 2010 masterpiece Certified Copy: The intent of the central, film-long dialogue shifted from scene to scene, until eventually it seemed the characters had shifted as well, leaving viewers to interpret what was meant to be “real.”
In Kiarostami’s latest, Like Someone In Love, Rin Takanashi plays a college-aged call girl who has to skip a planned meeting with her grandmother so she can cab out to a date with chuckly, elderly academic Tadashi Okuno. But while she wants to go straight to bed, he’s looking for the full GDE—granddaughter experience—so when she falls asleep rather than accepting his offer of soup and chitchat, he lets her doze, and even drives her to school the next morning. Then Okuno meets Takanashi’s snappish mechanic boyfriend (Ryo Kase), and continues pretending to be her granddad, lecturing Kase on love. As with Certified Copy, the characters are engaged in pretense—the movie’s title establishes that—but Like Someone In Love isn’t another elaborate, reality-bending mind game. The characters’ motivations are ambiguous, but who they actually are isn’t.
By and large though, that ambiguity isn’t compelling enough to animate a movie so languorous. Does Okuno want to have sex with Takanashi, or does he just miss his real family? Will Kase ever realize that the Takanashi lookalike he keeps seeing in escort ads around town actually is Takanashi? Is Kase a good enough boyfriend to justify his jealous rages? These characters are all circumspect by nature, which means none of these questions go deep enough to push Like Someone In Love to the level of one of Kiarostami’s classics. And the movie’s ending puts more of a question mark at the end of the story than a period or an ellipsis. (And not a “What does it all mean?” question mark, but rather a “Wait, exactly just what just happened?” question mark.)
What’s left are the film’s smaller fascinations. An early scene where Takanashi listens to her grandmother’s voicemails and then has her cabdriver circle the spot where the old lady is waiting is like a heartbreaking short film. Later, as Kiarostami keeps pushing characters into smaller and smaller frames, the narrowness of the roles they’re all playing becomes more poignant. And then there are all the references to Okuno’s work as a “translator,” and his fascination with western art forms. Kiarostami seems interested in how one culture interprets and adapts another, and suggests that there are times when the differences can’t be reconciled, even by the most diligent, kindly old scholar. Is this the stuff of gripping drama? Not at all. But like nearly all of Kiarostami’s films, it’s the stuff of good conversation.