The year in film starts with a bang: Like Someone In Love, from master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, is an enigmatic and beguiling gem. It’s a variation on the themes he explored most recently in 2011’s Certified Copy, and it’s just as much of a head-scratcher, even if its plot appears to be considerably easier to follow. Or is it? Like Certified Copy, it deals with relationships that are fundamentally ambiguous because they are always, in effect, representations of something intangible. Kiarostami remains obsessed with ideas of seeing, perception, and truth: what do we see when we look at, for example, a young woman and an elderly man? Can we trust ourselves to read their relationship accurately? To what extent are relationships between people ongoing performances played out for an audience of others? The central couple in Certified Copy entertained themselves—and us—with a series of role-playing games; the young girl and the old man in Like Someone In Love play similar games, though the stakes are higher and the consequences potentially more serious, mainly because they involve a highly volatile third participant.
Like Someone In Love opens in a Tokyo nightclub where we find Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a Japanese college student who moonlights as a prostitute, in the process of fending off an interrogation by her jealous fiancé. After another argument with a man who seems to be her pimp, Akiko takes a long cab ride to the home of a client who lives outside of the city in a cluttered little apartment over a noodle shop. The client, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), is an elderly professor and translator whose interest in Akiko is unclear: he insists that they sit down to dinner together and refuses to join her when she undresses and climbs into his bed. The next morning, as the professor drives Akiko to class, they encounter the jealous fiancé, thus setting into motion the final act of the film, which is by turns touching, comic, and suspenseful.
The film unfolds at a wonderfully deliberate pace; its rhythms are soothing, placid, even as its plot is driven by a persistent tension. In Kiarostami’s masterful long takes—particularly those shot through car windows, in which the play of reflections on the glass creates visually dazzling compositions—allow us to sink into a kind of meditative trance, out of which we’re eventually jolted. It’s the most rewarding kind of art film, one in which we’re both intellectually engaged with the questions being raised by the filmmaker and seduced by the ease with which it’s been put together. Kiarostami’s tone is utterly mature: he’s not out to affect “gotcha” twists or to mess with his audience’s heads for the sake of novelty. Instead, he pulls the rug out from under us quietly, with a smirk. And he absolutely nails the ending, which at the screening I attended was met with gasps, followed by little waves of shocked laughter. If I see nine more films as good as or better than this in 2013, it will be a very good year indeed.