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Like Someone in Love

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'Like Someone in Love' is haunting and puzzling
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

Now in his fifth decade of filmmaking, Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami remains one of the most vital and unpredictable artists working in any medium. His new film, "Like Someone in Love," is the second narrative fiction feature (given the variety among the kinds of films he makes, the individual distinctions are crucial rather than redundant) he has made outside his native country. "Like Someone in Love" is the follow-up to 2010's "Certified Copy," which was shot in Italy and spoken in French, Italian and English; this movie is set in Japan, Tokyo and its outskirts. Unlike "Copy," it does not unfold as a puzzle movie, but, moving ahead from a somewhat conventional opening, it ratchets up to one of the most galvanic and disturbing visions Kiarostami has ever concocted.

Bing: More on Abbas Kiarostami | More on 'Like Someone in Love'

The conventional nature of the opening has to do with the characters and their situation, not the director's approach. In a sense that we'll get the full resonances only as the movie goes on, the opening line sets the tone: "I'm not lying to you," a young woman says into a cellphone as she sits in a busy bar, as other young women chatter and drink all around her. She tells whoever is on the other end of the call that she's at a café, and so it seems. Later it turns out it's not the café that she's specified, so she is, as it happens, lying. We learn, in dribs and drabs, what she's up to. Akiko, played by Rin Takanashi, is a student who's moonlighting as a call girl, and she's not at all happy about it. The soft-spoken and seemingly demure young woman ends a conversation with her apparent pimp by literally shrieking, "I told you I'm not going," but she ends up in a cab anyway. After a ride in which she's depicted as, among other things, snubbing the grandmother who's traveled by train to visit her (the financial straits that have led Akiko into this line of work are implied in a phone message from a bank), she winds up awkwardly at the above-a-restaurant book-lined apartment of an elderly professor (Tadashi Okuno) who wants to feed her dinner while they listen to old American jazz records, among them a rendition of the song from which the movie takes its title, sung by Ella Fitzgerald.

I'll be honest: At this point in the movie, I was thinking, "Oy. Another john-friendly depiction of an emotional bond developed between a prostitute and her client who are revealed to be, after all, just two lonely people in this world." I mean, the professor even has a cuddly Captain Kangaroo-style moustache. Still, I ought to have given Kiarostami more credit here. The characters of john and client never really get to forge anything beyond what their shared circumstances allow them, and those circumstances only grow more hostile as the movie progresses. After spending the night together, professor Watanabe offers to drive Akiko to her school, and here the movie painstakingly departures from standard-narrative-momentum start to payoff. As other critics have noted, and viewers of prior Kiarostami pictures such as "A Taste of Cherry" and "Ten" certainly know, the director really cooks in scenes set in cars, and when Watanabe's parked and waiting for Akiko outside of a school building and is approached for a light by Akiko's petulant supposed fiancé, who takes Watanabe for Akiko's grandfather, the movie builds to a new level of tension and a deeper exploration of the effective distinctions between presentation, appearance and reality. These distinctions are as crucial in Japanese society and culture as they are in Iran, or the United States, for that matter, but Kiarostami demonstrates an exquisite grasp of the specificities at play here, and he orchestrates these and other components to build to a climax/conclusion that's both immediately upsetting and likely to haunt the viewer for days to come. The puzzle here is life itself, and the solution is, Kiarostami asserts, still a work in progress and may continue to be that long after we're gone.

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Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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