What Will Be Will Be
by Paul Felten
Abbas Kiarostamis Like Someone in Love
Opens Friday, February 15 at the Sunshine Cinema and the Walter Reade Theater
1. We begin in a Tokyo barroom—maybe a little tacky but amiable enough, familiar enough, with its Toulouse-Lautrec posters and youthful customers sipping neon cocktails. The camera watches implacably from a corner of the room as the patrons move in and out of its field, their conviviality made somehow jagged by the shot’s insistence on keeping the unpeopled space in front of the bar at the center of the frame: a stage waiting for an actor. Offscreen—behind us, let’s say—a woman insists on her fidelity to a jealous boyfriend; he’s berating her over the phone, out of our hearing; his accusations can only be inferred by her response to them. She promises over and over that she’s been faithful. She can’t see him tonight. Her grandmother is waiting.
She’s not telling the whole truth, of course. How could she be? Everything about this lengthy opening shot, with its resolute security camera unwillingness to follow the human flow, invites a kind of suspicion. The place may be familiar, but the view is partial: pseudoneutral, both true and not to be trusted. Finally we see the woman—Akiko is her name—around the time her bespectacled pimp saunters through that space the camera’s been holding for him, sits down, and tells her about that night’s assignation.
2. Do I have to watch Abbas Kiarostami’s films all over again? Why, for all his formal wiliness and surreptitious protest against the Iranian government from which he is finally in exile, have I insisted on seeing him as a kind of avuncular elder statesman of international cinema? I have confused him with one of the old men in his films, the soothsayers who appear near the end of Taste of Cherry (1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) to deliver koans and bromides to distressed younger men. But is that even what they were doing? Why was I so unprepared for the cruelty and fear that permeate Like Someone in Love? Were I to go back and watch everything now that I’m older, would these qualities be present? Or have they emerged as Kiarostami himself has gotten older and can’t make films in his homeland anymore?
Probably I should go back and watch his films all over again. But there is also something new here.
3. Kiarostami began his career as a teacher of sorts, making didactic educational films for children. Akiko’s client is also a teacher, an elderly professor of sociology who, we are told at one point, has written a book on “violence in society.” His name is Takashi and he’s downright gallant: he’s bought champagne, cooked a shrimp soup, and subjecting Akiko to what would no doubt be a tedious night of erotic work is the last thing on his mind. When she goes through the motions—stripping down and climbing into bed, moaning about how cold she is, “come warm me up,” et cetera—Takashi watches in embarrassed horror, as though his invitation has been misunderstood. Moments ago they’d been talking at amicably awkward leisure about family, his work, Akiko’s strong resemblance to a woman in a painting he’s got hanging in his living room. But now there’s a naked woman in his bed—something new, we realize, or at least long forgotten—and whatever “company” he wanted from her (it is never clear to us because I suspect it’s never been clear to him) has been sullied by the sudden fact of the transaction he’s entered into. Akiko’s youthful nudity is reflected as a blur in the television next to Takashi as he averts his eyes and squirms in his seat—another inference, another refusal on the camera’s part to show us fully what we know is there. But there it still is, only one of many invasions in the film. Kiarostami’s latest old wise man breathes a sigh of relief when his prostitute finally falls asleep.
4. My guess is that much will be made of the fact that the ever-elliptical Kiarostami has set this film in Japan, which many Western critics have deemed the capital of ellipticality. And there’s something there; he has previously filmed a tribute to Ozu, and the Japanese aesthetic term mu—translated as “nothingness” but referring to the static contemplative spaces that are part of a larger pattern: the spaces between the flowers in the arrangement, for instance, as vital to said arrangement as the flowers themselves—describes a quality present in all of his work. But I prefer to think of the movie as one made as much in exile as in Japan. Kiarostami’s Tokyo is an overcast, mysterious, and ultimately terrifying place. And where is exile? If we’re to believe Edward Said, it’s a place where (among other things) “achievements…are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever,” a dislocation that may offer “plurality of vision,” but “no sooner does one get accustomed to it than its unsettling force erupts anew.”
Do these phrases not also describe a particular kind of elderly life—an ideal but nevertheless rather grim versionof old age, in which the agile mind still lives in and remembers with clarity the once-vibrant body? In which a kind of complacent solitude, whether physical or mental, plays a necessary part? In which an authority in his field (“violence in society,” directing movies) may very well be thrown out of joint by the not-so-simple act of subjecting himself to the unfamiliar? One thing do I know: Kiarostami’s fiction films have never only been fiction.
5. Takashi drives Akiko to school the next day—turns out she’s studying sociology—and there takes place another invasion: the boyfriend, waiting for her outside. We see him as Takashi does, from a distance, looming threateningly, grabbing, and about to do worse until Akiko wrenches free and escapes inside. Takashi watches as he broods and eyes the car. His approach is slow; suddenly he’s humble, deferent. He motions to Takashi to roll down the window. Eventually Takashi lets him in. “Are you her grandfather?” the boyfriend asks, and Takashi demures—no, feints, with an elegant rhetorical strategy that somehow denies grandfather-ness while simultaneously implying it. He is an embodiment now of that first shot in the bar: not lying exactly, but still hiding the vitals. He is, come to think of it, doing exactly the kind of performance that Kiarostami has done for so many years, layering truth onto fiction onto truth until the wary viewer (in this case the boyfriend, clenched and ready to commit violence even as he speaks of love) can’t help but give himself up to the fact that he’s in the passenger seat. Which is not to say he won’t eventually figure things out.
Akiko gets back into the car with the two men. She is understandably worried. In a private moment, Takashi assures her that all will be fine, the story is going to go smoothly—“whatever will be will be,” he tells her, avuncular as hell, and then he hums a few bars of the old French song, enjoying himself.
6. I should just about stop here, because I’ll go on forever otherwise and ruin it for you. As always with Kiarostami, every detail seems important, every gesture of consequence; you do not write a “review” of one of his films, you recreate it to understand what it is exactly that you’ve seen. I haven’t even told you about Akiko’s drive to the professor’s—her grandmother is waiting for her—and I haven’t told you about the flood of deranged Tokyo signage reflected onto the passengers behind Kiarostami’s beloved hyper-reflective windshields: the place washes over them as they move through it, obstructing, transforming, commingling with their placid faces.
But I have to tell you about the second to last scene in the movie, where Akiko sits outside of Takashi’s apartment holding a rag to her bloody nose. Things have not gone as well as Takashi thought they would; the fiction has not worked after all. She waits for him while the camera watches her—not impervious to her pain, exactly, but not quite pervious either. Then another invasion: this one auditory, a strident call from an old crone tenant across the way who barely introduces herself (she, of course, assumes Akiko is Takashi’s granddaughter) before unleashing a torrent of complaints about Takashi, parking, marriage, and finally her live-in “handicapped” brother who can soon be heard screaming in the background. In two minutes this woman goes from a sitcom shrew to an almost unbearably poignant abider; she is as troubling a snapshot of loneliness as I’ve ever seen in a movie. “I just sit behind this window all day, looking out,” she says, her own face half-hidden by a sash, her life brutally demarcated—for her as well as us—by a rectangle that is the size and shape of a movie screen.
7. I know that I should probably watch Like Someone in Love again. I know that I haven’t seen all that’s there. But I also know that Like Someone in Love was not the title of the film while it was shooting.
It was called, simply, The End.
PAUL FELTEN is a screenwriter based in New York City.