In the films of Abbas Kiarostami, the frame is never just a frame—the world always extends beyond it. Sometimes that means a sound just off screen—the bells on a donkey, the banging of dishes in a kitchen, the whisperings of a couple. More often than not, this extension goes beyond the off screen space to the creation and creator of such space, as he comments on his own existence as a director.
Kiarostami’s films are thus about seeing beyond the frame and the image. The vast and expansive shots of landscape in Through the Olive Trees and The Wind Will Carry Us suggest a world in which the camera can only penetrate so far. But in his latest feature, a Tokyo-set drama entitled Like Someone in Love, we get the opposite: the frame is intruded upon. In a bravura 15 minute opening scene, an inaudible voice on a phone berates a young woman. She herself is offscreen as well, separated from the communities lounging around in the restaurant. Soon enough a man enters the center of the frame and demands this young girl work tonight. Like that opening shot of Ten, Kiarostami forces us to desire the cut, to open the world beyond what we can see. That freedom eventually comes, but it is not a sustained one. Like Someone in Love is almost suffocating in its tension.
There are many ways that Like Someone in Love will be read as a diversion for the Iranian director. It’s his second film after the masterful Certified Copy to be set outside his home country, and his first to be set in a contemporary Western city. More than those surfaces differences, it is most notable in its pure difference in feeling. Kiarostami’s films often breathe life into their viewers. They feel gentle and welcoming, even when their characters perhaps act bitter and angry. Like Someone in Love feels almost the opposite; by the end of this film, my stomach had turned over multiple times.
The film centers on the metropolitan space, where individuals live anonymously, but at the price of claustrophobia. In a press conference last year at the New York Film Festival, Kiarostami remarked that he set an early draft of the script, written twenty years ago, in Tehran. But I cannot imagine such a film taking place anywhere besides Tokyo. After a screening, a friend reminded me how Jonathan Rosenbaum said Jacques Tati’s Playtime taught him to live in a metropolitan area by showing him how to engage with a public space. Like Someone In Love taught me to avoid these spaces all together, suggesting an atmosphere of inescapable claustrophobia. It’s literally one of the most unpleasant films I’ve sat through in quite some time — I was physically shaking, practically ready to vomit after seeing it. That’s not to say the film is bad — it might be one of Kiarostami’s most meticulously crafted films, and its ability to create such reactions out of such ordinary situations confirms his talent.
What caused these feelings? Kiarostami’s film follows two characters, a call girl named Akiko (Rin Takanashi) and an elderly professor named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). After a severe chiding by her boss, Akiko travels to the outskirts of Tokyo to meet Takashi, where their date doesn’t go as planned, and it’s unclear exactly what Takashi wants. The film then follows the next day as the two interact with a third character who misreads their situation, leading to a tense standoff — the conversation revolves around seemingly mundane details, but Kiarostami’s decision to let most of it play out in a single long take had my stomach twisting into multiple knots.
While set in Tokyo, it is certainly a Kiarostami film for many reasons: the car becomes an essential location, less important for its destination than as a place of discussion and debate. There are characters pretending to be who they are not, philosophical comparisons between art and humanity, and an emphasis on the importance of perception. Yet Kiarostami uses those elements to explore the burden of metropolitan living. Conversations once considered private now happen in the center of public space, often through technology (most notably a melancholic mini-narrative where Akiko’s grandmother remains digitally close to her granddaughter but physically distant). Only on the outskirts of Tokyo does a conversation feel free and honest. But by the end of the film even this safe space is attacked, in a shocking scene of violence unlike anything Kiarostami has produced before.
More than The Master, Like Someone In Love feels like a film I will need to see twice in order to understand the whole breadth of its sheer complexity. This piece itself is less a “review” than a feeling out of moods and feelings. I’ve now contemplated it for months since seeing it, both eager to revisit it while also dreading revisiting that feeling. Its frames might be overly elegant in composition, but they also tore me apart, creating a yearning for the small town I grew up in.
Having just visited Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy the other week, I was struck how two of the films ended with shots where the camera dared not to penetrate into moments beyond cinema’s capacity. In Like Someone in Love, the cinematic intrusion is now played in reverse. It is an ugly realm for Kiarostami to explore, but also a necessary one. He has long intruded his camera on the lives of others, both real and imaginary. Perhaps now, he allows for the narrative to turn against himself.