How can I explain to you the experience of watching Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone In Love? Perplexing? Enigmatic? Hypnotic? If I tell you that its mysteries were beyond me, would that scare you off? How can I explain a movie that I don’t understand but enjoyed anyway? Perhaps “enjoyed” isn’t the word; I was absorbed in it. The composition of the shots, the rhythmic pulse of the editing, the natural and all-encompassing tableau of the sound design wrapped me up in a blanket of filmmaking that was warm and dreamlike. Totally immersed in its world on a sensory level, I was freed of the binds of traditional moviemaking: plot, action, obvious cues, story clichés. I didn’t see a movie; I had an experience.
Does this sound like something that interests you? I don’t know if what I say does the movie justice and I’m not sure I care. Kiarostami’s defining characteristic is presenting gorgeously constructed but just the same blank canvases for his audience to use their own emotional state to fill in the color. That’s certainly the case for his Certified Copy (2010), the best movie of recent years, about a couple whose relationship changed and shifted before our eyes and for no apparent reason. I found the movie to be an exhilarating study of the transitive nature of love; it didn’t matter to me to know all the answers and reasons—the immediate experience was more than enough. Many people found it frustratingly opaque and therefore couldn’t connect with it. My guess would be that these people would like Like Someone In Love even less. The new movie doesn’t have the same immediacy, the same sumptuousness, the same loveliness, but its deliberation allows for more in-movie reflection (the reflection for Certified Copy, a movie I’ve thought about more than any other the last three years, occurs afterward) and gives room for a true absorption of all the corners of the frame. While the story might be a blank canvas, Kiarostami’s images are anything but.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Kiarostami, an Iranian who worked for 35 years exclusively in his home country but recently emerged as a true world filmmaker, should set Like Someone In Love in Japan, as the detailed clutter of his frame reminded me definitively of the Japanese master of composition, Yasujirō Ozu. Like Someone In Love’s visual style has little to do with Ozu, Kiarostami’s camera moves with regularity, the angles change, and the construction of scenes is wildly different, contrasting against Ozu’s still camera and rigid construction. But like the master, Kiarostami takes time and effort in his composition, creating a deliberate tapestry of objects and people that seems at once random and totally, minutely planned. The story, such as it is, follows an escort (Rin Takanashi) who begins a relationship (of ambiguous nature) with a widowed professor (Tadashi Okuno). The professor is drawn to the escort for her beauty and allure, but he also feels responsible for her, dismayed that the values and traditions of his generation are being eroded by commerce and high-living. This generational misunderstanding was central to most of Ozu’s movies and Like Someone In Love has the same quiet understatement.
That is perhaps, however, the only way Like Someone In Love is quiet. After its gorgeous image-making, what remains with me about the movie is its magnificent sound design, which is so subtle and yet so powerful, one that heightens your awareness of both the movie and the world you live in. Here we have a remarkable mixture of everyday sounds, cars driving by, neighbors singing idly out of windows, birds flying by that, over the course of the movie, sharpen the focus of your attention to the details, something your eyes have already been trained to do by the composition. The active filmmaker whose movies are most noted for the way they sound is David Fincher, whose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) was a masterwork of natural ambient sound. Like Someone In Love is very much in the same mold except its design is used for poignancy not suspense. The message of Like Someone In Love, comes to you very quietly, if it comes to you at all, and you have to be prepared to hear it.
Have I sold this movie to you? Sound design and visual composition? What if I told you there is no sex, only a single suggestive shot that has more eroticism than most Hollywood love scenes. What if I told you there was no violence, only a brief second of cataclysm that is so jarring it has all the power of ten 45-minute, city-destroying final superhero sequences? Oh, why bother? I don’t know if this movie is for you; I can’t be convinced it was for me. But I know I like what I don’t know and this mysterious movie left me gazing at stars, hearing guitars, limp as a glove, a little like someone in love.