In "Certified Copy," from Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami, a relationship blossoms and then fades under the Tuscan sun, though the story keeps changing its rules of engagement. The couple at the center, we presume, are strangers getting to know each other, but halfway through the exquisite riddle of a picture they "become" (or pretend to become) husband and wife.
Nothing so tricky occurs in "Like Someone in Love," the latest from Kiarostami. This is a more straightforward affair, though every shot is just so, beautifully observed and observant. Those anticipating another guessing game such as "Certified Copy" will be disappointed. I liked the film the first time I saw it, at the Cannes Film Festival. But a second viewing made me appreciate what's there even more, and experience the Tokyo-set story for what it is: a study in shifting personae, no less so than any of his earlier works.
The opening sequence plays hide-and-seek in a brilliant way. We're inside a tiny Tokyo club. A dozen or so customers share the frame, sitting at various tables. A woman, somewhere just outside the frame, is on the phone trying to shake her stalker boyfriend who keeps grilling her about her whereabouts.
After a tantalizing long while, the woman is revealed: She is Akiko (Rin Takanishi), a call girl supplementing her life as a university student with a little income on the side. Her boyfriend, whom we'll meet later, doesn't know about this double life she leads. "It'll be your ruin," Akiko's boss tells her, regarding the volatile relationship she's too scared to leave.
"Like Someone in Love" takes Akiko by taxi out to a suburb where a (mostly) retired literary scholar, played by Tadashi Okuno, has hired some companionship for the evening. Akiko doesn't want to be there: Her visiting grandmother, whom we know only through her increasingly plaintive cellphone messages to her AWOL granddaughter, waits in vain, alone, before her train is scheduled to take her back home again.
The confined interiors these characters inhabit, beginning with the bar we get to know so well in the opening 15 minutes, define Kiarostami's notion of the universe being made up of a million tiny encounters, whether inside a car (Kiarostami's films are crazy for vehicular perspectives) or someone's apartment. At the scholar's place, the older man and the younger woman discuss music and art and generally act like nervous teens on a first date. A reproduction of an oil painting, of a woman and a parrot, hangs on the professor's wall. The subject of the painting, he says, is Japanese, but the style is Western. "That's what makes it special," he says.
The next day the professor drives Akiko to meet her boyfriend, a garage mechanic played as a desperate, coiled bundle of nerves by Ryo Kase. The young man assumes the older one is his girlfriend's grandfather. They talk, while Akiko is away, the professor clearly not comfortable maintaining the ruse, but equally clearly unable to tell him who he really is: a john. Kase's character seems genuinely in love with Akiko. He's also emotionally abusive, capable of who knows what. Later, the professor consoles Akiko with platitudes: "It'll work out," he says. "What will be, will be." And then he sings a bit of "Que Sera Sera."
Where "Like Someone in Love" goes from there will startle some viewers. Since the Cannes premiere, the film's ending has vexed even its admirers with its abruptness. Kiarostami, here writing in a form resembling an extended and artful one-act play, peaks in visual terms with that opening 15 minutes. His story of loners is ultimately quite sad and frightening. But it's also gorgeously acted by all, and while this may not be one of Kiarostami's finest, the craftsmanship nonetheless is so high, it makes everything else currently in theaters look slovenly.
'Like Someone in Love' -- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:49; in Japanese with English subtitles.