The Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami has now made his second feature in exile. His first, Certified Copy, was made in Tuscany with a British actor and a French actress in the leads. Now comes Like Someone in Love, made in Japan with an all-Japanese cast. It is the latest step in a troubling journey.
Begin with the fact that Kiarostami’s ascent to the top rank of world directors was one of the most precipitous and sweeping on record. His work began to be known outside Iran around 1987, and such films as Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Through the Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry proved to be simple yet powerful inquiries into existence itself. Rooted in Iranian culture and a love of it, they nonetheless struck everywhere as, in uniquely mature style, they explored human lives with almost chilling insight. Their effect was in a way proved by the fact that within a relatively short time seven books were published about Kiarostami’s work in various countries, along with numerous admiring essays. But after The Wind Will Carry Us in 1999 there came no feature film from him for almost ten years. He was doing short films in different places.
Then came Certified Copy, made in Italy. This was puzzling, not only because Kiarostami’s films up to then had been so thoroughly Iranian, but because he had long ago said that he believed that directors need to work on native soil. It was further odd because this new film was thoroughly not Iranian. Reasons, political or otherwise, were not given for this change of place, but Certified Copy was completely European, a skillful comedy-romance, intelligent and enjoyable but stratospheres away from the depth of Kiarostami’s previous work. Still, some of us thought that Kiarostami had taken a holiday, had refreshed himself and made an engaging film doing it, and would now return to his sublime previous interests.
Like Someone in Love is directed imaginatively, is impressively acted, and is quite disappointing—not even successful in its own way, like the Italian film. Kiarostami has written a screenplay that does not even fulfill what small promise it shows. Set in Tokyo, it begins with Akiko (Rin Takanashi), an attractive young student who earns her living as a call girl, in a busy bar. At the start she declines a job that her pimp has found for her, but soon he puts her in a cab with the address. Her client turns out to be a white-haired ex-professor, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), living in a book-crowded apartment, a gentle man who has made a special supper for her, which she refuses. She just undresses, goes to bed, and—lazily, not sensually—invites him to join her. He is a bit bewildered by her behavior, but we may assume that he takes her up on the offer. After a cinematic whirling device, we see them next morning in his car as he drives her to a bookshop she wants to visit in the college where he taught for thirty years.
He parks there and she gets out. He sees her argue with a young man up at the door. This man is Noriaki (Ryo Kase), who makes his way into the car and, assuming that Takashi is Akiko’s grandfather, tells him that he wants to marry Akiko. When she returns, they all drive to a garage that Noriaki owns, where he makes a minor repair for Takashi. Then the old man drives home alone and soon hears from Akiko to come and get her. He picks her up, finds that she has a toothache, brings her back to his place, and is taking care of her when a man starts shouting outside and a rock comes through a window. Finish. The film ends as abruptly as if the projector had suddenly been switched off.
I have synopsized the story so that I can ask it some questions. Why did Akiko decline the job at the start? Why was she so dizzily amenable when she arrived? Why does the screenplay make nothing of its irony—the old ex-professor with a call girl who is a student in his own former college? If Noriaki was so friendly with Takashi, why did he throw that stone at the end, if indeed it was he who did so? Had he found out the truth about Akiko? If it was not he, who was it? We are left with a film that is a series of happenings that seem to be happening just to show us how accidental so much of life is. And around it, like a shimmering veil, we see sometimes the busy city of Tokyo.
Even if the screenplay were mended, it would still be nowhere near the quality of the work Kiarostami did in Iran, with little character exploration or thematic texture. We are left with a feeling of extremity, that this time he made a film in Japan because that is where he was able to make a film.
Kiarostami’s exile presumably is going on for grave reasons. I assume nothing about it. Whatever the cause, I note only that it is patently hurting a distinguished artist. He is now seventy-two.
A different extremity. The Chilean writer-director Raúl Ruiz died a year and a half ago after making more than 100 films. Some of them have been shown here, and he had won some recognition as a maker of imaginative, sometimes strange, almost haunted films. One posthumous film now arrives. Called Night Across the Street, it is adapted from the work of Hernán del Solar, whom Ruiz thought to be “one of the most secretive and surprising writers of Chilean literature.” I don’t know del Solar’s work, but Ruiz’s film is one of the most affectingly secretive and surprising films that I can remember.
It begins when Don Celso, an elderly office worker, in the Chilean port of Antofagasta, leaves a class where he has been studying French. We follow Celso to his office, where we learn in a conversation with his boss that he is about to retire. He doesn’t want to, but his farewell party is already set. Their conversation is carried on in the taut, wittily paradoxical style that obtains throughout the film. Soon without explanation or embarrassment, the scene shifts to the seaside, where a boy of about twelve, the young Celso, talks to Long John Silver. There is no misty dissolve: it simply happens. This is followed by more scenes with the grown Don Celso, followed by one with the boy and Beethoven—Beethoven himself—followed by more of Celso and his mature contemporaries, followed by scenes of Celso’s boyhood. We quickly grasp that Celso is dreaming, of moments of the future, many of which have not yet happened, spliced with fragments of the past. We grasp that the whole is a dream, by a man who is expecting to die before long.
The character of a dream is beautifully maintained. No spooky film effects, just one scene flowing boldly into another, all with a low yet realistic level of light, all with perfectly normal though unexplained behavior, all composed of present-day imaginings and fragments of the past. In short, like a dream. (Snatch of dialogue: A girl leaves Celso in a room and says she’s going out. Soon she returns. Celso: “I thought you were going out.” Girl: “So did I.”)
The film cannot be criticized for lack of cogency any more than a dream can be. It proceeds until Celso’s death by pistol shot. The person who does it is a surprise, as is the result. Then the film is over—unless we watch through the usual long closing credits, after which a voice says, “Cut!” This is more quittance than we get from most dreams.
All of the actors behave as if the proceedings were quite conventional, especially Sergio Hernández as Celso. Ruiz directs with many unique pictorial compositions but with the sense of continual flow—dream-like flow. The whole is all the more affecting when we learn that Ruiz knew he was lethally ill when he made the picture and died a few months after it was finished. It all has a sense of regret and almost relief. It haunts.