Saturday, September 13, 2014

Like Someone in Love

The first sentence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' The Memory of My Melancholy Whores is this:  "The year I turned 90, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin."   A similarly quixotic sentiment motivates Abbas Kiastorami's 2012 Like Someone in Love.  Elliptically narrated, the film details an encounter between a young call-girl and an elderly and famous sociology professor.  The outcome is alarming and, quite literally, shattering.  The premise of the film is simple enough:  the girl is a college student with a dangerously violent boyfriend and she moonlights as a prostitute.  Her boss, an avuncular if shady bar owner, sets her up with the old professor -- it seems that tavern-keeper, like several other characters in the film, was once a student of the famous scholar.  The girl is reluctant to accept the assignation because her grandmother has traveled to Tokyo to visit her.  But she ignores her grandmother's increasing plaintive phone messages and takes the job, primarily, it seems, because she can sleep in the taxi-cab driving her to the professor's small book-lined apartment.  As one might expect, her interactions with the old man are cringe-inducing -- he wants to be her friend and have a romantic dinner with the girl; she peels off her clothes and is briskly efficient about the transaction.  The next morning, the professor drives Akiko to school where another unpleasant encounter occurs.  Akiko's boyfriend confronts the old man who allows him to believe that he is the girl's grandfather.  Later, the boyfriend learns the truth about the relationship and besieges Akiko and the professor in teacher's apartment, possibly to the amusement of an prying old woman who is the professor's next-door neighbor and who has loved him herself for almost all of her life.  (She was disqualified from marrying the professor because of her duties caring her for handicapped brother -- we hear his voice on the soundtrack and he seems to suffer from cerebral palsy.)  The next-door neighbor pathetically confesses her romantic interest in the old man assuming that the girl is his granddaughter -- and, of course, the prostitute doesn't disabuse the woman of this notion.  Kiastorami narrates this story -- it has the character of a fable -- in an elliptical style:  initially, we hear the heroine speaking but she is off-screen and so we are puzzled:  the voice seems to come from nowhere.  (Akiko is talking on the phone about her violent and jealously possessive boyfriend.)  Later, the busy body neighbor speaks from off-screen as well and, initially, we have no idea as to the identity of Akiko's interlocutor.  The director uses long takes and, at least, half of the movie is shot in a moving car, first the taxi prowling the neon-lit streets of Tokyo and then, the professor's car as he drives the girl back to the college.  Akiko is a cipher, a small-town girl who came to Tokyo to work in the sex-industry and, initially,advertised so aggressively that her picture (dressed as slutty schoolgirl) and phone-number is scattered all around town -- both her boyfriend and grandmother have seen the image but they don't think it's Akiko but rather "someone who looks like her."  She is palpably exhausted throughout the picture and her assignation with the old man probably consists only of her sleeping in his bed, although it is never made clear exactly what happens between them.  Kiastorami reveres Ozu and many scenes in the film invoke the Japanese master -- the motif of the grandparents from the country coming to Tokyo, for instance, is an allusion to Ozu's heartbreaking Tokyo Story.  But Kiastorami's narrative is surprising on all levels and his strategy seems to be to challenge our expectations at each stage in the fable.  The old professor is not isolated or lonely -- everyone apparently knows and admires him and his phone rings constantly; he is more in demand than the call-girl.  In his encounter with the girl, he pretends to wisdom and, even, gives her grandfatherly advice, but the film makes it clear that he is as hapless, foolish, and, ultimately, panicked as everyone else.  The girl doesn't have a heart of gold.  The scene in which she has a taxi-driver circle the train station where her grandmother is waiting for her is particularly excruciating -- indeed, many of the film's scenes are almost unbearably sad, although there isn't any trace of sentimentality in the picture.  The prostitute's boyfriend, who seems to be a thug at first, is remarkably earnest and respectful to the old man, at least when he thinks that he is Akiko's grandfather, and seems like a diligent, competent fellow:  he runs a garage and cheerfully fixes the old man's Volvo when he detects an unusual sound in its engine.  The professor tries to play the part of the wise counselor and, even, sings Doris Day's Que sera, sera to the girl but, in the end, the ill-conceived rendezvous drives him into a state of helpless terror that is painful to watch -- he ends up a little like Professor Unrat in Joseph von Sternberg's The Blue Angel.  This film is one of Kiastorami's most accessible and disturbing pictures, a movie that resonates in the imagination after you have seen it and that raises many complex and troubling questions.  It's a little too refined and elegant to be a masterpiece but, certainly, as an essay in melancholy and as a commentary on Ozu's great works the movie is required viewing.  ("Like Someone in Love" is a tune sung by Ella Fitzgerald that the old man plays on his "date" with Akiko.) 

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