‘I’m not lying to you.”
Those are the first words we hear in Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami’s opaque but mesmerizing new feature, Like Someone in Love.
They’re spoken by Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a pretty young woman nursing a drink in a crowded Tokyo bar. She’s on her cellphone, defensively sparring with her fiancé, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), who suspects she may be cheating on him.
We don’t see her at first – we just hear the voice. That’s Kiarostami’s opening mise-en-scene gambit, a sly misdirection that establishes a principal theme, that what we can’t see – the action occurring out of frame – is more important than what we can see.
As it turns out, “I’m not lying to you” is just the first of several lies the central characters tell – lies of omission and commission, told to each other and, no less frequently, to themselves.
Akiko is a college student moonlighting as a call girl. Her designated John for the night, an assignation orchestrated by her imperious pimp, is the elderly Takashi (Tadashi Okuno).
A courtly retired professor of sociology living in the suburbs, he pretends she’s only come for an innocent date. He’s prepared a candle-lit dinner with fine wine and romantic music (Ella Fitzgerald’s version of the title ballad, by Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke). It does not unfold as planned.
Akiko’s blue-collar fiancée, an auto mechanic, confronts her angrily the following morning, still in the dark about her dual identity. Though she’s immersed in the unsavoury sex trade, Noriaki falsely sees her as knowing nothing about life. He wants to marry her, in part to protect her from what he sees as the “merciless, dangerous jungle” that the modern city has become. That chivalrous impulse, as the abrupt ending makes clearly, is steeped in irony.
A delicate pearl of a movie, Like Someone in Love is thus a meditative dance along the ambiguous borders of truth and illusion. What, Kiarostami seems to be asking, can we actually see? What can we definitively know? Far less than we think.
Appropriately, much of the film is shot (by cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima) through a glass darkly. Everything is refracted through mirrors, doors and windows. Long sequences are filmed inside cars – a taxi and Takashi’s Volvo – encapsulated universes that compound our isolation and confusion. The frame restricts our vision, while the glass distorts what we ultimately apprehend.
The movie is thus a logical successor to Kiarostami’s last movie, the oxymoronically named Certified Copy, which also dealt in the currency of identity and role-playing. Once again, he keeps his characters and his audience in a state of perpetual unknowing, suspended somewhere between reality and artifice.
The resulting tension is heightened by the setting. Making only his second film outside of his native Iran, Kiarostami undercuts the rigid protocols of polite Japanese society with intimations of violence.
Like the faulty drive belt on the Volvo, the film threatens to snap at any moment. Eventually, it does – the action again is initiated outside the camera frame, literally shattering the comforting cocoon in which we think we dwell.