Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Looking and Seeing: LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE

The great director Abbas Kiarostami uses his films to trace the most delicate of shifts in his character’s lives. Emotions sit tenderly on the surface of his imagery, at once staggeringly beautiful and completely ordinary. He’s never been a plot heavy director, all the better to create scenarios that breathe, characters that come alive. You don’t realize how little most films get up to until you see how much Kiarostami can do with the sparsest of stories. His last feature, 2011’s Certified Copy, his first shot outside his native Iran, consisted of little more than two great actors having a conversation in a picturesque Italian village. And it was one of the most fully realized relationship dramas of recent years, with one of the trickiest, slipperiest plots. Even Close-Up, his great 1990 picture set in his home country, with its instantly grabbing based-on-a-true-story story about a man who fooled a family into thinking he was a famous director, is rich in suggestion, small gestures with big meaning, exquisite frames with still, simple splendor telling so much.

And so, if Like Someone in Love had been written and directed by anyone else, the rough outline of its plot would seem like the stuff of broad farce or melodrama. Perhaps such an approach would be equally fruitful, but Kiarostami brings to this story his patience, his considered intelligence permeating every frame and every cut. The movie follows a young woman (Rin Takanashi) in Tokyo whose part-time job as a high-class escort takes her to the apartment of an elderly widower professor (Tadashi Okuno) who wants some company. Soon, he finds himself drawn into a grandfatherly position regarding the young woman’s relationship. Complications arise from there, but Kiarostami isn’t interested in building a plot machine. Audiences expecting the story to develop to a conventional climax and dénouement will no doubt leave disappointed. Kiarostami looks at his characters and their situations with a calm surface and intensity of interest, finding great power in subtly drawing attention deeply into the compositions, and deeper into the rhythms of his characters’ thoughts, feelings, and lives.

Take the virtuoso and much praised opening scene. It’s a shot of a busy bar. We hear a conversation on the soundtrack, but none of the people milling about appear to match the dialogue. After several minutes, a reverse shot finally lets us see Takanashi. She was behind our vantage point, talking this entire time. We’ve heard so much from her, but only now do we get to put a face to the voice. The direction has the capacity to draw you into a mystery so simple that it’s hard sometimes to realize how complex it is. What does it mean to know another person? Kiarostami has us looking intently in Katsumi Yanagijima’s cinematography for information, knowing that the power of cinema sits not only in what we see and hear, but in the absence of information as well.

He keeps up this strategy of keeping details and actors off screen. The young woman has a grandmother who appears only in voicemails that she plays while in the cab on the way to her client for the night. The camera sits on Takanashi’s face as the anxiously optimistic grandmotherly voice fills the soundtrack. The neon lights of the city cast a lovely, shifting glow on the windows that dances across her as she listens to the old woman sweetly, invitingly implore for a meeting. Her grandmother says she’ll be waiting in a plaza in a certain part of town and would love to see her. We get the feeling the young woman hasn’t seen her grandmother in a very long time, and the grandmother doesn’t know what the young woman does to make ends meet. The cab passes by the proposed meeting spot. I felt myself straining to see if the grandmother was there. I dare not say more about that moment. The film is built out of such searching ambiguities, inviting you to search the frame, study the precision performances, lose yourself in the beauty of the picture and the depth of the feeling. It wants you to see for yourself.

The young woman is in a period of transition, literally alternating between stasis and movement as the film progresses. She’s in vehicles and rooms, both pinned down in Kiarostami’s style. Even when she’s on the move, she’s stuck. As her connection with her client evolves, we learn about his life and hers. In conversation, we hear about them as they maneuver around each other. When the film follows them out into the light of day, as their situation complicates, the studied intricacy of Kiarostami’s point of view is so fine tuned that we don’t get a romance or a tragedy or any developments a more conventional film of Hollywood or art house persuasion would lead you to expect.

What Kiarostami is up to here is a tender character study that never erupts into anything as disruptive as typical narrative demands. It’s a work of style and performance that’s aching with compassion for all involved, charting shifts and incidents so slight and yet so impactful. He’s stripped away all the frippery and drama that could easily be built up around this scenario, the better to go digging around in the most elemental of questions about knowledge of self and of others. We spend our lives interacting with other people. If we’re lucky, we make truly meaningful connections. But what do we know of others? For that matter, what do we know of ourselves? What is the difference between being in love and behaving like someone in love? How much can we really know just by observing those we come in contact with?

Throughout Like Someone in Love, characters go about their daily lives. What we see is not especially notable, at least at first. Through their routines we struggle to make sense of what others know about them. As their situation develops, they struggle with how much to let on, what shadings and half-truths to apply as they relate to one another. Kiarostami makes a film that literalizes its theme in the structure and style by leaving information dangling, eliding some moments with artful cuts and stretching others in something like real time, and ultimately starting the end credits just as the plot is at is most overtly startling. He lets us look and see, but asks us to work with our observations to understand. And even then, he asks how much we really know. The uncertainty the film leaves the audience is simply the uncertainty of life. We think we know these people because we’ve seen a couple hours of their lives. But how much do we understand? And what happens next? We don’t know any more than the characters do.

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