I’d like to start with the word like. Twice in Like Someone in Love (2012), we hear Ella Fitzgerald’s 1957 recording of the song of the same title, originally composed for the 1944 film Belle of the Yukon by Jimmy Van Heusen, with lyrics by Johnny Burke. It may seem curious that an Iranian director making a film in Japan with a Japanese cast and crew would give it an English-language title borrowed from a Hollywood soundtrack, especially when he has repeatedly described his own idea of cinema as one in opposition to a Hollywood narrative tradition in which “we want to follow everything or we think the film has failed.”
Perhaps we can understand better by looking more closely at the word like. Many of Abbas Kiarostami’s narratives hinge on some form of dissimulation, on acting like. To offer only a few examples: in The Traveler (1974), a boy acts like a photographer, using a camera with no film in it to collect money to buy a ticket to see a soccer game that he will eventually miss because he oversleeps; in Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), a young boy, after failing to return the notebook that a friend left behind, will forge the friend’s homework, an act of generosity that will lead to a moment of grace; in Close-up (1990), a film that is both a real and simulated documentary, an unemployed man is accused of pretending to be a filmmaker to take advantage of a family whom he told he was going to make the subject of a film. Dissimulation in each of these works is about testing the limits of authority, social demands, and expectations.
The title of the film Kiarostami made right before Like Someone in Love, Certified Copy (2010)—shot in Italy, his first feature made outside his native Iran—explicitly foregrounds the relation of seeming and being. The theme, which begins in that film as an intellectual discussion between a man and a woman about authenticity in art, takes on another sense as the relationship between the couple at a certain juncture comes to appear to be something we had been made to believe (or did we only assume?) it wasn’t. Two seeming strangers getting to know each other—though something from the start feels unexplained about their connection—suddenly begin to act like a couple who may once have been or may still be in love.
In all of Kiarostami’s films, these games of simulation and dissimulation, likeness and play, are carried over from the protagonist to the spectator. One of the central gestures of his work is to create a relation to the film in which the spectator’s experience will mirror the character’s plight, which always means opening up a gap between the world (the social world but also the world of the film) and the viewer’s desires and revealing the subversive potential of appearance, of semblance, of being like. Kiarostami has suggested that this involves making the spectator the author of the film, which for him also means making the filmmaker something of a spectator.
The figure of filmmaker as spectator takes on a new resonance in the two films made outside of Iran. Kiarostami has always been invested in ways of seeing made possible from a position of not knowing where we are or what or whom we are looking at. Making a film in Italy or Japan, an unknown country, in a language he doesn’t speak, heightens in a new way the sense of the filmmaker as spectator, which in turn makes the audience more like creators, placed in a similar relationship of discovery as the filmmaker. This experience, we should be clear, should not be confused with familiar themes associated with the “art film,” such as alienation or ambiguity for its own sake, but rather it becomes the condition for an emotional connection that otherwise would not have been possible. It is also related to the profound political dimension of his films.
The tension between being and appearance in Kiarostami’s work has always been a way of challenging institutions and social expectations, whether related to education, work and class, the law, or cinema. Some of his Iranian features have also explicitly focused on love and romance (Through the Olive Trees, 1994) and on women’s experience (Ten, 2002; Shirin, 2008), but the regulated system of modesty since the 1979 Islamic Revolution meant that linking these themes was possible only through subtle displacements. Which brings me to another significant aspect of Kiarostami’s two films made abroad. They seem to have afforded him the opportunity to focus less discreetly than he has before on the figure of the couple in relation to norms of intimacy, the institution of marriage, by way of the question of love. In Like Someone in Love, especially, while making a film as an outsider meant in some ways a greater distance from the world and culture he was depicting, it also made possible a deeper probing of desire in its most physical dimension. This may be both Kiarostami’s most sensual and his most violent film.
“I am not lying.” These are the first words we hear in the film. We are introduced to the young woman we will come to know as Akiko (Rin Takanashi) and to her relationship with Noriaki (Ryo Kase) only through hearing her voice, which we are unable to place in relation to the image we are watching—a fixed waist-level shot from the corner of a Tokyo bar; it is a disorienting image with no focal point that asks us to ask what we are looking at and why we are looking at it. As we will soon realize, she is lying. She is telling her boyfriend where she is, but what we see tells another story.
After we’ve been denied the image of Akiko in the opening shot, she will soon become the object of our gaze in a scene that also shows the remarkable way in which Kiarostami is able to create an intimacy between his characters and the viewer by way of a shared look. We watch her traveling in the backseat of a car through Toyko to the sounds of another voice, her grandmother’s, heard in a series of messages she is listening to on her earbuds; the grandmother is in Tokyo for one day, hoping to see Akiko, calling back again and again to update Akiko on where she can find her. Meanwhile, the sense of Tokyo at night from a distance comes to us through the medium of the windshield—neon signs and red taillights flickering across or washing over Akiko’s face. We know that she has been convinced by her pimp to meet an important client in Yokohama, forsaking her grandmother, though she makes the cabdriver pass by the train station where her grandmother is waiting not once but twice. As the car is turning, we can make out an older woman with her bags looking around beneath a statue through a long shot. We strive for a better glimpse, and just as the cab begins slowing down in traffic, a white van moves in front and blocks our view. Akiko asks the driver to circle the train station once more, only to catch another furtive glance of the woman, no more satisfying than the first. We look for the grandmother, but we are not seeing the old woman so much as experiencing Akiko’s ambivalent desire to see her in the midst of avoiding her.
By continually frustrating our look and by withholding information that would frame our understanding of what we are seeing, Kiarostami intensifies an encounter between viewer and character that allows, as all films do, for projection (both liking and likening) and identification (the feeling of being like), but in a way that turns this relationship into an active process of perpetual testing. We may like the character and feel like the character, but we are also placed in a relationship of “like,” or semblance—our sense of both the character and ourselves in relation to the character being continually reimagined and reinvented. Akiko might be talking directly to us when she says at one point, “Not a day goes by that I’m not told that I look like someone.” Our relation becomes one of creative play, heightened by hesitation and curiosity. The hesitation caused by not knowing what our relationship with the character is meant to be does not make the encounter more distant but rather more acute.
Kiarostami generates, as perhaps no other filmmaker has before him, a moral relationship with what we are seeing. By a moral relationship I mean not one of moral judgment over what we are seeing but the opposite, the deeply moral encounter with the world that is experienced only by having one’s moral prejudices suspended. The viewer is implicated from the start by her own assumptions and expectations, but unlike, say, Michael Haneke, Kiarostami never uses the viewer’s implication as a device to indict her, to expose her guilt. He puts the spectator in a relation of mutual implication with the characters on-screen and with the filmmaker as spectator.
At this point in the film, Like Someone in Love would seem to have the makings of a melodrama: a young, beautiful prostitute and a jealous lover, with the mysterious important man she is being sent to meet filling out the triangle. The man in question will first appear to us behind frosted glass in a restaurant—like the opening shot, our first encounter with Akiko, a fixed shot with several planes of action demanding our roving, patient gaze. The retired professor and translator Takashi Watanabe, roughly eighty years old, is played by Tadashi Okuno, a lifelong extra (or spectator) who had never before spoken a line on-screen. The professor does not, we quickly sense, see himself as important, and his shuffling, self-effacing body language may make us question the expectation we have of the situation—that we are encountering a dirty old man.
Indeed, it’s hard not to be touched by his pathetic attentions to Akiko, his desire to serve her soup from her region that he has bought in the restaurant on the bottom floor of his building but pretends he has made himself, and we can be reassured by the way he immediately recoils when she tries to get him to join her in bed and teases him about the other girls he may have brought there. But is this all he wants out of the encounter—a little company, a grandfatherly relationship? As Akiko retires to the bedroom, there is a brief moment in which Takashi sinks into the couch, and we see him exhale—it is a subtle expression, not quite a sigh, but it seems to betray an inchoate sense of frustration and regret. Can we understand this moment in relation to Akiko’s likeness to several images framed in his apartment—not just the reproduction of Chiyoji Yazaki’s Training a Parrot, a century-old painting and the first, he tells her, of a Japanese subject done in a Western style, but also the two photographs of women who we guess may be his wife and daughter but whose identities or whereabouts we never learn? Is there something he desires from Akiko that he will not acknowledge even to himself?
While a position of not knowing is the basis for the relationship that Kiarostami seeks from his audience, Noriaki, the boyfriend, refuses that position in relation to Akiko. The desire to know, to master the situation, is a violent one, as is evident from the opening scene, in which she responds to his relentless interrogation. His goal is ownership, the solution marriage. As he tells Takashi, “That’s why I want to marry her. Then she won’t have any choice.” Noriaki’s form of love—jealous, covetous—suggests, as the professor wisely tells him, a lack of “experience,” but he may have something over the professor and Akiko: he knows what he wants. The undercurrent of violence that haunts the film may not be attributable only to Noriaki. Perhaps he simply brings it to the surface.
Back to the opening scene in the bar: there is a brief moment of rupture, of violence, that we can easily forget because, like so many things in this delicate film, we experience it only indirectly. It’s the one moment in the film where Akiko raises her voice. Her pimp, Hiroshi, while giving her fatherly advice—to be assertive and end her relationship with Noriaki—at the same time refuses to take seriously her desire to see her grandmother, insisting she do a job that night. We don’t see her—the camera is fixed on Hiroshi—when we hear her yell, disrupting the bar: “I told you, I’m not going!” When the camera cuts back to Akiko, it is almost hard to believe that the sound came out of this childlike young woman, the ambient noises of the bar having gone back to normal and Hiroshi unfazed. The shock of this moment will be echoed in the film’s final sequence, in which a sudden sound generated by something we never see will put an end to the film.
This enigmatic last scene is perhaps best left undescribed and uninterpreted, but I’d like to suggest that it is a response to everything that has led up to it. To try to close the gap between being and appearance is the ultimate violent act. The working title of Like Someone in Love was The End, also in English. Kiarostami has said that he pictured the words on the screen at the end like in an old Hollywood movie. A Hollywood ending, we know, means resolution without ambiguity, the end of conflict, and, as is frequently the case, the united couple living “happily ever after.” In contrast, the shock we experience at this abrupt ending seems to tell us that when the subject is love, violence is the only possible result if we wish for “The End”—an end to semblance, to likeness, to the hesitation or ambiguity that allows us to discover that we, like the characters we are watching, are not fixed identities and through an encounter can open up to a new sense of ourselves. Or, as we hear Ella Fitzgerald sing over the end credits: “Sometimes the things I do astound me / Mostly whenever you’re around me / Lately, I seem to walk as though I had wings / Bump into things / Like someone in love.”
Nico Baumbach is an assistant professor of film studies at Columbia University. He writes on film, philosophy, and the intersection of aesthetics and politics.