Sounds like the setup for a joke, right?
And it is, in a way. Like Someone in Love is a comedy. A twisted comedy, but it made me laugh. It was the laughter of recognition — “when you laugh but you feel like dying,” as the song goes. It hurt to laugh for all of the sadness and folly that made this scenario possible.
As far removed as this story is from my own experience, I laugh as I watch it because I know how these characters are feeling. It has the ring of truth, a truth we all experience to some degree.
When we meet Akiko, the call girl, she’s in a restaurant trying to cope with the harassment of an obsessive, demanding boyfriend. She lies to him about where she is and what she’s doing. She sounds miserable. She is.
This is not the way she wants the world to work. She’s not where she wants to be. A world of barriers — some transparent and some opaque — separate her from a loved one, a grandmother who, having arrived in town, is left alone at the station without anyone to pick her up. But what can Akiko do? She’s trapped, caught up, carried along by the consequences of her decisions, seemingly helpless to change her circumstances.
When we meet Takashi, the scholar, he’s living alone in a warmly furnished apartment filled with books and comforts. He works as a translator, but that does not mean he’s a skilled communicator. Doing business on the phone, he frustrates his contacts, and the added complications of digital technology make effective communication difficult.
Then he meets Akiko, and we realize why he’s such a broken man. He’s lonely, sad, and eager to connect in a certain way — to know something of the intimacy and pleasure he once found with his wife, even if it’s just a charade.
This is not the way Takashi wants the world to work. This is not where he wants to be. A world of barriers — some transparent and some opaque — separate him from the one he loves. And here he is, hoping for a meaningful connection with a young woman who is only present because she’s doing her job and getting paid. His desire for romance, for an evening of conversational intimacy, will be frustrated. But what can he do? This is the way the world works now. He’s trapped, caught up, carried along, seemingly helpless to change his circumstances.
Another character, a young man who works in a garage, will enter their story. His frustration with the world is immediately obvious. And the lengths to which he will go to force his will upon the world will threaten both Takashi and Akiko. This is not the way he wants the world to work. He is not where he wants to be. And his ideas about love are altogether different from Akiko’s and Takashi’s. But unlike them, he’s not just going to go along for the ride. He’s going to fight for what he wants.
Like Someone in Love is a movie about love — how much we need it, how we go wrong in the way we pursue it, and how one world’s ideas about it are passing while another’s are taking over.
The old world’s ideas were filled with romance, rituals, beauty, and intimacy. But they were also hierarchical in cruel and unusual ways, and women were disrespected, mistreated, even abused. The new world’s ideas? The world is a marketplace and love, like anything else you might want, can be bought.
Akiko is fighting back against her ancestors’ traditional ways — she’s going to school, and she’s employed in a business. But as a result, love seems unlikely and even impossible. “Love” becomes a commodity bought and sold, which turns her to selling herself as an object — the irony being that she is “modern” by willfully working in “the world’s oldest profession.”
Takashi misses the old ways, but he’s employing the modern world of commerce and capitalism by trying to purchase what once came through tradition and relationship. “Love” is, for him, something he once had, something he hopes to replace.
Locked together in a car, Akiko and Takashi find themselves telling lies in fear that the true nature of their relationship will be exposed. And the irony runs deep. It’s ironic that they end up telling a lie that resembles the way the world should be. Akiko should be with her grandparent, not a “customer.” Further, it’s ironic that the reality of their relationship is, itself, a lie… one sold, one purchased.
Okay, I called this film a joke, right? It doesn’t sound very funny, does it?
But it is funny — even hilarious — nevertheless. As we watch these characters stumble into increasing stages of crisis due to their lies and indiscretions, we’re headed into territory that seems like something out of a Woody Allen movie. Oh, the things we do for love… or for something like it.
Are any of these characters really in love? If so, with whom are they really in love? How do they show it?
As dark as things become, this is not a cynical movie. I’m touched by Takashi’s desire to serve someone, by Akiko’s broken heart for her grandmother, by the mechanic’s gullibility and his single-minded quest for love (however flawed). As we look at this network of negatives, we just might learn a lot about the sort of “positive” that they’re all seeking.
Director Abbas Kiarostami’s last film — Certified Copy (which I’ve been known to include in short lists of my all-time favorites) — featured two main characters and one supporting character. They moved around Italy on foot and by car. And they revealed, by talking almost incessantly, that they were living within three separate worlds. They talked to get what they wanted from each other. They talked to express their longings. They ranted about the ways in which they were letting each other down. And everywhere they turned, we were confronted with questions about the difference between a “genuine article” and a “copy.” When it was over, questions hung in the air: Had they connected at all? Was there any hope for them to know real love?
In both films, the dialogue demonstrates just how profoundly everyone is misunderstanding each other. But where Certified Copy felt like a screenplay carefully crafted over many years, this film feels discovered, almost improvised, in its spontaneity. There’s a playfulness and a lightness here that feels new.
That playfulness can be seen in the film’s dazzling visual flourishes. The imagery is more seductive, more colorful, and more alive with light and motion than anything Kiarostami’s tried before. It looks like the work of a more “painterly” filmmaker, like Hou Hsiao-hsien or Krzysztof Kieslowski.
(In one of the early exchanges between Takashi and Akiko, I found myself wondering what Kiarostami thinks of Kieslowski, whose sumptuous and subtle Three Colors trilogy was also about border crossings, cultural shifts, and the many ways in which we “translate” our love. As the film progressed, I thought often of the trilogy’s conclusion — Three Colors: Red — which focused on an old man who, insulated from the world by windows, has his security shattered after he allows a young woman through his front door.)
And yet, it expands on visual suggestions he made in Certified Copy: frames within frames and reflections within reflections emphasize the ways we compose our worldviews, and the many barriers that those views from connecting. He continues to tease the audience by placing important details outside the frame. In the opening scene, we have a fixed view of a restaurant, but we cannot see the person whose voice we hear. Others approach, speak to her, but her image is withheld from us for a long time. We keep revising who we think she is, where we think we are, and what we think is going on. But then, someone sits down right in front of the camera, and we’re challenged to figure out his relationship to her. Family member? Friend? Lover? Employer?
Clearly, Kiarostami has not lost his desire to play with our assumptions and draw us into mystery.
Nor has he lost his career-long fascination with automobiles. He takes that interest farther than ever here. Takashi’s Volvo, like so many cars in Kiarostami’s films, becomes a symbol of seclusion, insulation, separation, even alienation. And when it’s turning beneath elevated highways, the spinning light and shadow on the windshield is fantastically dizzying, underlining the characters’ disorientation. A vehicle of convenience, it ends up obstructing views, carrying passengers into unexpected dangers, and — in a moment that makes audiences gasp — it comes incredibly close to doing irreparable damage.
He’s also asking more of his actors than before. Rin Takanashi, Tadashi Okuno, and Ryo Kase give us three distinct and complex personalities through subtle and nuanced performances. While this screenplay must have been only about one-fourth as long as Certified Copy, I’d argue that the actors make this movie every bit as complex, inviting us into countless corridors of inquiry. They made me feel almost equal sympathy and affection for each of these characters.
I feel for Takashi, because he’s not pursuing cheap sex — he’s trying to buy a way into feeling, well… like someone in love. He wants a chance to serve someone a good meal, and to enjoy it by candlelight. He’s just going about it like a consumer, a method doomed to fail.
I feel for for the mechanic. He may have an unhealthy idea of marriage, but he’s not thoroughly evil. We see that he’s quick to help somebody in need; he’s generous and useful. Alas, he’s in love with a liar, idealizing her and recoiling from any suggestion that she might be, well… the very thing that she’s become. At least he’s pursuing the one that he wants. At least he’s acting like a young man in love. And while a world of barriers, some transparent and some opaque, separate him from her, he’s not likely to let those barriers stand.
I also feel for the film’s fourth character — one of Takashi’s neighbors. She’s a little batty, distracting herself with fantasies of an impossible romance while suffering in service to a difficult family member. She contributes mightily to the way the film challenges our assumptions, just as the woman at the cafe in Certified Copy turned things upside down.
Kiarostami’s greatness is best seen in how everything, even seemingly incidental details like the plight of Takashi’s neighbor, end up “speaking” into the film’s meaning.
Take, for example, the painting on Takashi’s wall. It shows a woman teaching a parrot to speak… or, perhaps, the opposite. Who’s in control here? Are they really communicating, or is this a meaningless exchange that exposes loneliness?
Don’t overlook what Takashi says about the image: It’s a copy of a landmark painting, the first to show us Eastern subject matter in a Western style. This seems incredibly important. Perhaps we’re asked to consider the influence of Western ideas on Eastern culture. I suspect so. Perhaps we’re meant to realize that this film gives us Japan through the eyes of an Iranian — in fact, an Iranian exile — for the first time, showing us new truths through an outsider’s perspective. I suspect so. Perhaps the painting reflects the plight of a young woman who, like a parrot, is saying and doing what she’s been taught… quite literally a “trick,” containing nothing genuine. Or maybe we’re meant to think about the lonely soul who speaks with a trained bird and gets nothing of substance in return.
Maybe it’s all of the above.
And there we are reflected, you and me, in this movie about three lonely people who are longing for love. There we go, fumbling through our days, suffering for all of the ways in which we sell ourselves, for the lies we tell each other, for that attempts to seize by force what can only come by grace.
The last film that enthralled me as much as this one? I think it was Certified Copy, which I’ve revisited almost ten times since its release. I suspect that this is the beginning of a beautiful new relationship. This is why I go to the movies. To be challenged. (Oh, no.) To be dazzled. (Stop me. Stop me before I say it.) To be inspired. (Too late!)
Like someone in love.