starring Rin Takanashi, Tadashi Okuno, Rio Kase, Denden
written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami
by Angelo Muredda Few filmmakers know how to put you on your guard from the first frame as effectively as Abbas Kiarostami. It's clear enough that Like Someone in Love opens in a bar in Tokyo, but it's harder to say at first what we're looking at and why. The closest voice we hear belongs to the off-camera Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a young woman who's a little too preoccupied with lying her way out of a hostile phone conversation to process the flat image of well-dressed young revellers in front of her. Whether she's our lead takes a couple of false tries to figure out. Our first candidate is a redhead around her age, sitting at a table off to the side until she suddenly relocates to an empty seat in the foreground, coaching Akiko through the rest of her call until she relinquishes her spot moments later to a fortysomething man who speaks to both women with first the familiarity of a parent, then the condescension of a high-end pimp directing his employees. Somewhere in-between these encounters, we briefly lose track of who's even doing the looking. Akiko waltzes into our field of vision on the way to the bathroom, the camera fixed at where her eyeline used to be after she's vacated her seat, as if holding her place until she gets back.
You could read this opening game of musical chairs as nothing but a cheeky bit of misdirection, or you could say that the oblique set-up prepares us to accept misdirection as method. Like Certified Copy, its sister film in Kiarostami's oeuvre (sharing its two-hander structure, its minimalist tone, and an international setting outside of his native Iran), Like Someone in Love has the sustained ambiguity of a riddle. It's telling that the redhead's parting shot before she's replaced at the table is a dirty joke that Akiko doesn't understand; she repeats it later for her new client, an elderly sociology professor named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) who's just as baffled by its meaning but better trained to laugh at punchlines when he recognizes them. Like that joke, which hinges on a millipede's ability to signify two things at once, the film speaks in the language of games, expressing Kiarostami's curiosity about the way people assemble and reassemble themselves in an instant depending on the rules of the conversation.
Where Certified Copy felt like a humanist riff on the modernist identity play of Last Year at Marienbad, Like Someone in Love has Nabokov on its mind, filching Lolita's road narrative about inappropriate, age-disparate lovers and bending it for the traffic jams and neon billboards of Tokyo. The visual pairing of young Akiko with Takashi, who orders her extra-curricular services for a night, recalls a less volatile version of the Humbert-Lolita dynamic. Like Humbert, Takashi is a translator with a penchant for wordplay. Although Akiko is a university student rather than a proper nymphet, her escort work flirts with the same sort of transgression, as her jealous fiancé Noriaki (Rio Kase) points out when a co-worker gives him a sex ad with an image of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to her, done up in pigtails as if to bait men of Humbert's persuasion. For his part, the skittish Noriaki isn't much of a Quilty figure, dumbly mistaking Takashi for Akiko's grandfather at first instead of seeing through the ruse of paternal affection, yet the threat of sexual replacement by a double is more or less the same threat hanging over Humbert, who likewise plies his paramour with consumable goods.
One doesn't want to push too hard on this analogy. Suffice it to say that what seems to interest Kiarostami about Lolita is how its characters occupy multiple identities simultaneously, with Humbert in particular oscillating between dissipated European academic, fairytale ogre, and tragic prisoner at any given time. In this case, an old scholar gets to play tender Lothario with a sleeping beauty in his bed one night and doting grandfather on the ride to school the next day. Akiko, meanwhile, shifts gears in that opening scene from a demure fiancé on the phone to a sex-worker spending a late night at the office, and later appears to relish a third role when she's mistaken for Takashi's granddaughter by his nosy neighbour. Going through the motions of the conversation makes it real.
The trick is that none of these identities are treated as especially inauthentic. "I'm as much a grandfather to you as I am to her," Takashi tells Noriaki, and though he's being ironic in his private knowledge that "as much" means "not at all," he's also sincere, happy to perform whatever part the moment requires. The final beats of the film, especially the abrupt last shot, would seem to cast that fluid approach to identity in doubt, revealing it as untenable should others refuse to play along. Here we're out of Kiarostami's amorphous world of cityscapes distorted into new shapes by the reflective surfaces of windshields and into something resembling fascism, where a fiancé is always a fiancé. The temptation is to read that shift as a cheat, or at the very least a bitter joke on these characters' inconstancy. But my sense is it's a bit more nuanced than that: a pained recognition that like romantic pop songs (and movies), playtime is precious precisely because it isn't built to last.