Like Someone in Love won’t break your heart while you’re watching it. That will happen two or three days later, while you’re sitting at a stoplight or in the checkout line at the grocery store. This kind of slow-burn emotional juju is the forte of Abbas Kiarostami, the esteemed Iranian director who has been working outside of his native country since 2010’s Tuscany-set Certified Copy.
Kiarostami, whose latest is set in Tokyo, once explained in an interview that he wanted to make movies that lull audiences to sleep in the theatre and keep them awake in the wee hours. This may seem like a bizarre tactic for a filmmaker, but it’s a fascinating reflection of real-life experience: Very few moments in our lives have an importance that’s obvious and immediate. Tragically, our lives seem most vivid in hindsight.
The title comes from Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of the eponymous American jazz standard, which plays twice in the film. That embedded qualifier – “like” – is key, because none of the characters in this triangle manages anything better than an approximation of love: Akiko (Takanashi) is a college student who secretly moonlights as a call girl. Her grandmother, who has come to Tokyo to visit, is stuck at the train station, leaving a series of voicemails, because Akiko’s pimp has insisted that she go out to the suburbs to entertain an eminent former professor (Okuno) from the university. The old man wants Akiko for company, not sex, a situation that only makes her feel guilty. Meanwhile, Akiko’s boyfriend (Kase), a physically and verbally abusive young thug who is clueless to her double life, is also leaving a constant stream of voicemails for her. By chance, the two “suitors” come face to face; the young man assumes the old john is Akiko’s grandfather and asks for his blessing to marry her. Kiarostami leaves us wondering what kind of reconciliation, if any, is humanly possible. The characters’ painful inability to connect only endears them to us, and somehow the film seems, like any human object of our affection might, more vivid and more knowable in its absence. That is precisely Kiarostami’s romantic-fatalist thesis: Absence, and only absence, makes the heart grow fond.