Like Someone In Love

In his latest work, Like Someone In Love, Abbas Kiarostami weaves and unweaves the fabric of identity that makes up his characters, tracing with particular attention the threads of voice and appearance.  The film opens in a stylish bar, where the muffled drone of the patrons serves as background noise to what at first seems to be a voiceover.  Only after we cut to a reverse shot do we see that the speaker is Akiko (Rin Takanashi) – a young, quiet, and distant sociology student, working on the side as an escort – speaking on the phone.  Later, still at the bar, she meets briefly with her pimp, who tries to convince her to take a job that night with an important client.  It is already evident that Akiko is removed her surroundings; while her friends mingle and tell crude jokes, she either sits alone at a table on the telephone, or tensely discusses private business.

The telephone is a persistent trope in Like Someone In Love, especially for Akiko’s character.  When her composed and authoritarian pimp arrives at the bar to pressure her further about the job, Akiko complains that she cannot – her grandmother has made an unexpected visit to Tokyo, and has left several voice messages, asking to meet.  After further persistence, Akiko agrees to go see the client.  She is sent off in a taxi to his home – an hour’s drive.  In the car, she listens to her grandmother’s messages.  The camera lingers outside the cab, but stays tightly focused on Akiko.  The vibrant Tokyo city lights obscure Akiko’s face to a degree, but we can see that as she listens to her grandmother’s voicemail her eyes tear up and glass over.  As the lights rush past her window, it seems that the world moves around her, while she stays static.  We can see her, but there is a pane of glass separating us, pushing us away.

Akiko falls asleep in the taxi, and soon arrives at the apartment of her client, Watanabe Takashi (Tadashi Okuno).  Shortly after she enters his home, his telephone rings.  He is a retired academic, and a colleague has been trying to contact him all afternoon, to get him to translate five lines of Japanese into English.  Akiko looks around the room while he speaks on the phone, and notices a painting hanging on the wall that she had had in her home growing up.  In it is a young girl and a parrot.  Akiko remarks that her family used to tell her that she looked like the girl in the painting; her aunt used to joke that, instead of the girl teaching the parrot to speak, in the painting, the parrot teaches the girl to speak.  Akiko ties her hair like the portrait subject’s, and the professor compares the resemblance.  She says that “not a day goes by without somebody telling me I look like someone.”

Akiko here reveals to what degree she is defined by those around her.  She is a face, but not a voice.  As a writer, Takashi makes a living by adopting a similar position.  Translating others’ words into another language is his form of imitation.  But he also writes books, and in doing so takes on a larger ownership over his work; in his books, he is a voice without a face.  Akiko, conversely, has a very weak grasp on who she is or what she wants to be.  She lives two lives: one as a student, and one as an escort.  In each of her roles, she behaves like someone in love, but her feelings for anybody – most of all her fiancée Noriaki (Ryo Kase)– are ambivalent at best.  As a prostitute, she replaces the authenticity and genuineness of emotional intimacy with the superficiality of the physical.  And when Takashi cooks her dinner, lights candles, offers her romance, she does not accept.  She instead strips naked, climbs into his bed, and promptly falls asleep – unused to relationships of real substance.

The next morning, Takashi offers to drive her to school to take an exam. While Takashi waits for her in his car, Noriaki approaches him, inquiring about his relation to Akiko.  Noriaki is unaware of Akiko’s double life, and expresses concern that her cell phone was off all night.  He tells Takashi, mistaking him for Akiko’s grandfather, “I worry about her.  I want to marry her.  That way I can protect her.”  When Akiko returns to the car, she is relegated to the back seat, as Noriaki sits in the passenger’s – she is, as before, a passenger in a taxi.

The film is punctuated by incomplete characters.  Akiko is unable to stand up for herself, driven by others’ needs while she moves around Tokyo, in cars literally driven by others.  So she submits herself to a stationary, passive existence.  Other characters too are seemingly half-complete: Akiko’s grandmother is just the voice on the other end of a cell phone; Takashi’s employer who persistently calls, asking for work favors, is only ever heard through Takashi’s speaker phone; a nosy neighbor is introduced first as just a voice-over, and dominates a conversation between herself and Akiko to the degree that it resembles a voice message.

Like Someone In Love explores the distance that its characters place between themselves and the people around them to resist surrendering to the inherent vulnerabilities and uncertainties of intimacy.  This behavior is objectively recorded with little judgment or comment until the final scene of the film, in which their detachment from one another is shattered.  The boundaries between one another, figurative and literal, are broken, and they all must finally claim agency over themselves and their relationships.