In Certified Copy, director Abbas Kiarostami followed two ostensible strangers as they meandered around Tuscany largely in real time, using each other to act out the parts of husband and wife, in the process weaving through the rage and confusion that had seeped into each of their lives. The way in which Kiarostami gradually peeled back the dynamic of their relationship was a neat trick, and threw into question much of what we assumed about the characters throughout the film.
Kiarostami’s new movie, Like Someone in Love, turns on a similar if slightly subtler and ultimately more underhanded shifting of roles. If Certified Copy showed us two people attempting to understand their lives through the mutual assignment of false roles, this new film shows us what can happen if people use those roles to find comfort for themselves and become complacent.
Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is a Tokyo call girl who is goaded by her boss into visiting a client instead of her grandmother, who is in from out of town for a short visit. Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) is said client, a grandfatherly professor making a living performing translation services. Takashi assumes a gentle role with Akiko, as is seemingly his wont: he is grandfatherly and professorial, after all. Akiko, emotionally vulnerable after her cancelled meeting with her grandmother, is only too ready to be receptive to his demeanor. They quickly strike up what could be called a work friendship.
The next morning, Takashi takes Akiko back into Tokyo and to Noriaki (Ryō Kase), her clingy, abusive boyfriend. Takashi himself strikes up an acquaintance with Noriaki, not correcting the younger man when he assumes that Takashi is Akiko’s grandfather. The unconventional trio motors around Tokyo, Akiko and Takashi engaging in a delicate bit of theater to keep the hot-tempered Noriaki on an even keel.
This plot synopsis gives short shrift to the fact that much of Like Someone in Love is spent in thoughtful, melancholy, or merely quotidian silence. Kiarostami lets many of his scenes play out in real time, and dwells on missed phone calls, careful kitchen preparations, jokes with missed or confused punch lines, and episodes of dozing off behind the wheel of a car. A huge portion of the movie, in fact, is spent within the confines of automobiles, peering through their light-dappled windshields and maneuvering through byzantine urban streets, lingering for every turn signal and blind-spot check.
It is during these long sojourns and detours that what we take to be the dynamic of the film begins to form. It is largely formed by Takashi, who relishes the role of the rakish but well-meaning meddler. Takashi seems to want to gently counsel Akiko through her difficult life, and feels he can become sort of a benevolent influence on her. That he has to masquerade as a different person and, almost by necessity, involves Akiko in his playacting, seems to him to be a decent trade-off for being able to help the young girl.
But his attempts at aiding Akiko shift the nature of their relationship and bring a number of thorny issues out into the open. When Takashi introduces himself as Akiko’s grandfather, is it a playful fib or has he, for all intents and purposes, truly assumed that role? When Noriaki makes his official introduction to Takashi as Akiko’s fiancé and then proceeds to hold forth on their relationship problems, does it not serve the same purpose as it would if Takashi was the real thing? Does Akiko play along with Takashi’s inventions out of necessity or because she wishes they were really true?
Kiarostami lulls the viewer with these reveries up until Like Someone in Love’s final five minutes, when he ratchets up the tension with masterly pacing before resolving the film in a shattering denouement that throws into question everything that has come before. It seems that, for all the good Takashi might be able to do Akiko in a false role, the two friends have ultimately been clouded as to the true nature of their situation.