Kiarostami was that rare artist who lets his work be open to others’ interpretations.
Even in films made in his native Iran, Abbas Kiarostami and his characters frequently wandered: from house to house, town to town, on foot or, in his preferred mode of transportation, by car, whose mechanical confines were often the location for a chamber drama that in films like Taste of Cherry took place in a car more than in any other location. In Like Someone in Love, the last film released during his lifetime, the director ventured even further from home than the Tuscan setting of Certified Copy to immerse you in the alienation and isolation of yet another strange land. This heartbreaking journey, a search for wisdom that is frustratingly incomplete, is his final masterpiece.
The film is named for Ella Fitzgerald’s version of a lush romantic standard, but its characters and visual design both keep emotions at bay—at first. This bittersweet swansong opens in a crowded Tokyo bar, a vibrant scene of late-night socializing. We hear a voice speaking, but we don’t know where it’s coming from; reflections among the glass panels of the bar make the view that much more disorienting, but after a second viewing, it’s easy to see what’s happening. The disembodied voice you hear is that of Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a young prostitute who’s on the phone with her abusive boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase), whom she is trying to appease. Her one-sided cellphone conversation is one of many voices heard at a distance: through voice mails, windows and glass partitions, dialogue attempted from different rooms or different cars, as though communication is permanently compromised.
Akiko’s boss convinces her to take a last-minute job, and although she protests that her grandmother is in town, she takes a cab to see the client, which sets up one of the most beautiful sequences in the director’s career. As she listens to a series of phone messages her grandmother left over the course of the day, we see Akiko in the passenger seat, whisked through the busy streets of Tokyo, its bright lights playing across her face through the reflections of the cab’s windshield. When she catches sight of her grandmother, waiting by the train station for one last chance to see her granddaughter, a random truck blocks Akiko’s view of the life she left behind. It’s heartbreaking. The director takes you from a scene where you wish you knew what was going on to one in which it’s all too painful to see what’s happening.
The rest of the film is a slower burn that moves through some of the director’s favorite themes of fantasy and reality, mistaken identity and frustrated quests. Much of the film takes place in the apartment of her client, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno, a veteran stage actor in his first film role), an elderly professor who seems to have a more avuncular than prurient interest in Akiko. The professor’s apartment is lined with books; above his stereo system is a reproduction of an enigmatic painting depicting a young woman and a bird. Akiko explains that when she was young, she was told that she was the girl in the painting; but in this hall of wisdom, she learns that the art she grew up with was not specifically about her. As the pair wonder if the woman in the painting is teaching the parrot to talk or the parrot is teaching the woman to talk, Akiko and the professor seem to recognize that their own roles in this sordid assignation are ambiguous.
Takashi’s apartment is a refuge for the mind and body, yet the outside world calls in the form of extended sequences of that Kiarostami staple: people talking in cars. The film suggests a kind of theatrical Uber: hail a cab not just for transportation but for mobile drama.
Kiarostami was that rare artist who lets his work be open to others’ interpretations. He said that he makes one film while audiences see a hundred different films in their head, and this plays out within his films as well: a prostitute mistaken for a granddaughter, a john mistaken for a benevolent elder who in the end embodies this protective role. The director began his career with films that starred children and hoped to educate them, as often as not revealing to them the harsh realities of the world. His career ended with a film whose young star, although far from Iran, may have been the kind of child he tried to reach in his first films. But in a film of broken communication and missed messages, Akiko doesn’t get the message. The professor who hired her services (for reasons that are never explained) transforms their service contract into a kind of counseling session, much as the professor counsels the hot-tempered Noriaki, who in turn diagnoses and repairs the wheezing drive belt on the professor’s Volvo. This broken character has the wisdom of machines but not of the human heart. Which can’t be said of Kiarostami, who navigated a world of technology and miscommunication and plumbed it for all its complex drama.