Kiarostami goes pop in Like Someone in Love
Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian formalist filmmaker, can take a simple story and overcomplicate it–stretching curiosity beyond the point of interest. When his films first played the U.S. in the 1990s, the effort to grasp his technique felt worthwhile, partly through fascination with his view of what was an unusual part of the world (to us).
Set in Japan, Kiarostami’s new film Like Someone in Love adapts his inflexible methods to a far different culture than his own and doubles his usual complexity: He observes a young Tokyo call girl Akiko (Rin Takanashi) whose rapport with an elderly client, a professorial translator Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), contrasts her disenchanted romantic relationship with a sullen mechanic Noriaki (Ryo Kase). The story’s basic elements are not unlike Kiarostami’s 1994 Through the Olive Trees where individual personalities conflict with inescapable cultural traditions. It gave an extraordinary view of contemporary existential unease in a bucolic setting
Kiarostami’s method of concentrated long takes and emotional detachment was always affected but was refreshing at a time when most commercial cinema felt uninspired. In Like Someone in Love, the ideas don’t emanate from the environment; now it’s Kiarostami’s “vision” as a practicing auteur.
Once again working outside Iran, as in Certified Copy (his 2010 film set in Italy), Kiarostami follows the Krzysztof Kieslowski route by cashing in on his renown and exporting his methods to the outside world, employing exotic artiness. Similar to Kieslowski’s art movie jackpot, the very uneven Three Colors trilogy, Like Someone in Love has a European festival circuit gloss. It is far from the working class and rural setting of Kiarostami’s exploratory Iranian masterpieces.
Here, his subject is not life and nothing more (the title of his 1992 film); his own style has become his subject. He doubles his exoticism.
The specific problem is that as Kiarostami maps out his typical formula in the Akiko, Takashi and Noriaki triangle, he repeats what foreign film audiences already know from a number of been-there done-that art moviemakers: Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Naghisa Oshima, Yasujiro Ozu. As a result, Kiarsostami’s glittering night-cafe opening scene seems inpudently self-conscious. Its minimal activity and obscure characters (Akiko, her pimp and another hooker) stylizes bored modern sophistication. The scene is deliberately perplexing as it disassociates the image of the café interior, its reflective surfaces and the foregrounded sound of an enigmatic conversation.
As Kiarsostami gradually clues us into Akiko’s detachment from her family, Takashi’s idiosyncratic isolation and Noriaki’s urban anxiety, he wraps the character revelations in the unusual (for him) chic of pop music. At one point, Doris Day’s existential torch song “Que Sera, Sera” from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much is invoked and two Ella Fitzgerald tracks “Like Someone in Love” and “Sophisticated Lady” are used as a motifs. The use of these songs is wan (rather than ironic/iconic) but the intention is unmistakable: This is Kiarostami’s attempt at making a Wong Kar Wai film.
But Wong’s great Happy Together, My Blueberry Nights and In the Mood for Love (paens to The Turtles, Nat King Cole, Cat Powers and Nora Jones) captured the spiritual fabric of those films. Kiarostami exploits Fitzgerald just as P.T. Anderson misused her in The Master. Though it’s consistent with the disconnected voices, images, phone messages and each characters’ secret pasts and competing realities, the mix is both overly subtle and literary. Only Ryo Kase breaks through the dull formalism; his mannerly but edgy mechanic-in-love recalls one of Frank Borzage urban swain. Too bad Kiarostami’s art tourism neglects his sociological roots, mistaking chic and gloss for depth.
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