Friday, February 15, 2013

Like Someone in Love (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

The disparity between a person’s public face and their private self is not one that many filmmakers even acknowledge, let alone let entire films spring from that, but then, Abbas Kiarostami is not a typical filmmaker. Feeling no obligation to hold his audience’s attention - he’s said that he prefers films that put people to sleep - the Iranian filmmaker has given himself an artistic license to catch his characters at their least guarded, drawing a sharp disparity between how they interact with one another and what they do when they’re “alone.” His latest film, Like Someone in Love, opens with a long sequence in which Akiko (Rin Takanashi), who we come to discover is a prostitute, cycling through several confrontations across space and time, as she speaks with her domineering boyfriend over the phone, her boss and coworker face-to-face, listens to message left by her grandmother, who had hoped to meet up with her during a day-trip to Tokyo, and finally her elderly customer, who gets a little less from their arrangement than perhaps he expected, but who the next morning seems no less pleased.

Akiko’s profession automatically leads one to a sort of comfort with the meaning of the film’s title - the hiring of a prostitute allows a person to behave “like someone in love” - but the allusion is more directly to the pop song written by Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke, the Ella Fitzgerald version of which plays a couple of times in the film. The song is in most ways like any other 1940s standard, with its melancholy tune and romantic lyrics, but it expresses these things by equating the narrator’s actions to those he/she understands to be most commonly associated with love, as though those actions in and of themselves dictate his/her emotional state. “I find myself gazing at stars / Hearing guitars like someone in love / Lately, the things I do astound me / Mostly whenever you’re around me,” thus we must be in love. It’s reverse-engineering emotion - if action is most often dictated by emotion, then my actions must allow me to determine my emotion.

But Akiko doesn’t stop to at least say “hi” to her grandmother, even though she’s been waiting at the train station all day, updating Akiko as to her latest specific whereabouts and impending departure, and even when - most heartbreakingly - Akiko passes by the station and sees her standing, looking hopefully, she simply continues on her route. The way Akiko speaks of her grandmother, and her expression in seeing her stand alone, tells us how she really feels, but she simply continues on her way to see her client, appearing more than happy to be there upon arrival. If anything, Akiko’s actions reveal the exact opposite of her interior state. And that’s just the first twenty, twenty-five minutes of the film. She, like many people, is also in a relationship with a man she seems to hate, and who shows her little affection in return, and who assumes Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), the aforementioned customer, is Akiko’s grandfather, an illusion he is more than willing to uphold. This might seem a more blatant form of the public face/private self divide, but it’s one that’s complicated by the fact that him knowing Akiko’s secret - her profession - allows him to be much closer to her than her “real” grandparents, while their relationship has remained, apparently, uncompromised by the sexual interaction on which it was supposed to be based.

For all of Kiarostami’s talk of putting people to sleep, and the appearance of a “nothing happens” plot, it’s a sign of his mastery over the form that this was one of the more engaging films I saw at AFI Fest, even though, afterwards, I was very much ambivalent about my response. I was hardly swept away by it, but was carried along, gently, at every turn, never feeling as though things were particularly dragging. The film had since lived on, and in the ensuing months, scarcely a day went by that I didn’t consider it on some level, and getting the chance to see it again a few weeks ago very much hardened it in my mind and heart. It is in this way a more rewarding film than some with more outwardly appealing qualities, as it has seemed to last for months instead of the hour-forty-something of its running time.

See, Kiarostami’s preference for films that put their audience to sleep isn’t just a fun bit of baiting. In the rest of the quote, he states, “I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.” The unsettling qualities - the hints at subjects of alienation, emotional exile, and, to some extent, self-abuse - might not be immediately evident, so shrewdly are they disguised and so unadorned are they in their presentation, until one thinks back, or revisits it, and sees that the way the film culminates is not so unexpected, not so jarring, and not purely the result of a dramatic imperative to “do something” with a premise. Using the sound design as the foundation for this climax might seem at first to be a grand formal bargain to excuse a small budget, until one notices how thorough and considered the auroral environment has been all along. Like the actions the characters take, it’s just an outward expression of what’s been going on the whole time.

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