Like Someone in Love, the gorgeous, deeply mysterious and unsettling new film by Abbas Kiarostami, continues his return to narrative filmmaking, which began with Certified Copy, the Italy-set feature that marked his first outside his native Iran. Kiarostami's latest, which can be seen as a companion piece, is set in Tokyo, and like Certified Copy, transforms its adopted setting into a rich environment where his cinematic gifts are evident in ways that rival some of his Iranian masterpieces, such as Close-Up, Through the Olive Trees, and Taste of Cherry. Also like Certified Copy, Kiarostami explores the theme of identities assumed and performed, although in contrast to the more romantically-inclined tone of his previous film, here he introduces an element of volatile instability, leading to a denouement that (literally) shatters the placid surface of what has come before.
Kiarostami's mastery is on immediate display in the opening scene, a tableau featuring a bar at nighttime, with patrons drinking and chatting, where our eye is drawn to a woman with striking red hair. But the voice we hear doesn't match what we are seeing. It in fact belongs to Akiko (Takanashi Rin), a young woman assiduously concealing the fact she works as an escort from her boyfriend, Noriaki (Kase Ryo), with whom she is speaking to on the phone. The woman with red hair is Akiko's friend and fellow escort, Nagisa (Mori Reiko), who assists Akiko in trying to convince the jealous and suspicious Noriaki that she is currently somewhere else. Akiko, anxious that she has not been successful, is given an appointment by her pimp Hiroshi (Denden) on the other side of town. Though she strenuously protests, with the excuses of having to study for a college exam and wanting to see her grandmother, she reluctantly gets in the cab for the long ride that will take her there.
This beautifully played initial scene sets the stage visually and thematically for much of what follows, from the nocturnal, neon colors of Tokyo, to the recurring motif of reflective surfaces, here represented by Akiko framed inside Hiroshi's reflection in the window as he sets up her appointment. This suggests that Akiko is trapped within the agendas, needs and desires of the men in her life, including Noriaki, and to a certain extent, the man she is about to meet.
Akiko's cab ride occasions yet another of Kiarostami's signature scenes inside automobile interiors, which have by now become pretty much de rigueur for his films. It is a bravura sequence, visually striking and emotionally poignant. As the bright neon colors of nighttime Tokyo flash by Akiko's car window, and the lights dance across her face in the window's reflection, she listens to the unanswered voicemails sent by her grandmother (Kubota Kaneko). Akiko has been concealing her escort work from her grandmother, and the recordings become a parallel plotline that help fill in some of her backstory, and give us clues to what she has sacrificed by moving from her hometown to the big city. This culminates in a heartbreaking scene during which the cab encircles a city landmark, one which hints at Akiko's feelings of regret for the path she has chosen.
Akiko finally arrives at the home of Takashi (Okuno Tadashi), an elderly retired sociology professor - incidentally Akiko's college major - who still does translation work, as evidenced by a phone call he gets while they are together. Though Akiko is ostensibly there for sex, that isn't what happens; as Takashi puts on jazz music - notably including an Ella Fitzgerald recording that lends the film its title - the two engage in a conversation about pictures of Takashi's family and a painting prominently hung on the wall, whose subject Akiko supposedly resembles. "Not a day goes by that I'm not told I look like someone," Akiko says, reinforcing the film's theme of assumed identities. Akiko attempts to earn her pay by trying to get Takashi into bed, which he seems reluctant to do; exhausted, she falls asleep as Takashi watches her.
The next morning, Takashi drives Akiko to her school, where he watches as Noriaki accosts her on the front steps. Noriaki then approaches Takashi, whom he assumes to be her grandfather, Takashi doing nothing to disabuse him of this notion. They have a long conversation, mostly about Akiko, and Noriaki's anxieties about what she is hiding from him, and his wish to marry her so he can "protect" her. Takashi tries to discourage him from marrying her, telling him not to question her whereabouts so much. This case of mistaken identity reveals that both men have agendas toward Akiko, Takashi assuming the familial role assigned to him by Noriaki, perhaps as a substitute for an actual family member from whom Takashi is now estranged. Kiarostami once again displays his gift for making static scenes of conversations into fascinating insights into human behavior.
When Akiko returns from taking her exam, they all drive to the garage where Noriaki works to repair the engine in Takashi's car. While they are there, a customer at the garage recognizes Takashi as one of his old professors. This threatens to expose the false relationship Takashi and Akiko have constructed, setting the scene for the final section, which introduces elements of suspense and even violence that are quite new to Kiarostami's work. It also leads to the abrupt and rather shocking conclusion, which has proved to be quite divisive for festival audiences who have seen the film.
Like Someone in Love, as indicated by its title, "like" being the operative word here, is a bewitching and intriguingly ambiguous exploration of the roles we play with one another, and how nothing is ever quite what it appears to be. Kiarostami casts a spell that deeply resonates with one long after the film is over, assisted greatly by the wonderfully played performances from Takanashi Rin, Okuno Tadashi (a theater and character actor making his leading role debut at age 80), and the impressively versatile Kase Ryo. The wondrously moody and evocative cinematography by Kitano Takeshi regular Yanagijima Katsumi also contributes to the great artistic success of Kiarostami's latest expatriate cinematic venture.