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A Director Who Likes to Start in the Middle

by Dennis Lim, ArtsBeat, NYTimes

When the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was last at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago, he brought with him one of his more crowd-pleasing efforts, “Certified Copy,” a two-hander set in Tuscany, and his first film with a movie star (Juliette Binoche, who won the festival’s best actress prize). Mr. Kiarostami is back this year with another film shot outside Iran, the Japanese-language “Like Someone in Love,” about the enigmatic, subtly shape-shifting relationship between a young woman and an old man in Tokyo, but the reception has been quite different.

Amid familiar Kiarostami themes like mistaken identity and role-playing, the film sustains an aura of opacity and mystery that left some bewildered and others enthralled — up until an abrupt ending that prompted some loud boos at the press preview on Sunday. The reception was much warmer at the official screening on Monday, and the movie is still being talked about as a contender for the top prize, given Mr. Kiarostami’s track record (a festival regular, he won the Palme in 1997 for “Taste of Cherry”) and the avowed admiration of this year’s jury president, the Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti (who made a short about opening Mr. Kiarostami’s classic “Close-Up” at his Rome cinematheque).

Speaking in Farsi through a translator and clad in his signature sunglasses, Mr. Kiarostami discussed his new film in an interview on a rainy Tuesday morning here at a beachside restaurant. Edited excerpts from the conversation follow (his first two responses contain mild spoilers about the film’s final shot): 

Q. A lot of people here are talking about the ending of your film, so it’s worth noting that its original title was “The End.” Why did you first call it that? 

A. When I was writing the script I wasn’t thinking about a title. But then came this scene where the stone breaks the window. All of a sudden I wrote “The End,” in English, and the version of “The End” that came to my mind was that of the title at the end of classic black-and-white American films, even down to the font. I’m not sure why I had this phrase and this image in mind, but I thought, O.K., this can be a temporary title and that shot would be a temporary ending. I sent the script to my translator and producer and expected them to tell me that this is not an end to the story, and if they had, I would have asked for time to find a better ending. But they didn’t, and I gradually realized I was unable to add anything more. I also thought the title was close to the theme of my film, to the character of the old professor.

Q. How did you settle on “Like Someone in Love” instead? We hear the Ella Fitzgerald song of that name at a pivotal moment.

A. When I started searching for music for the moment the girl enters the old man’s apartment, it came naturally that as someone from my generation, he would listen to jazz. The first album I took off my shelf was Ella Fitzgerald and I just bumped into this song, “Like Someone in Love,” which I thought was a nicer title. Once I shot the actual ending I thought “The End” might lead to some misunderstanding, as if I meant that the character died. 

The phrase itself sounds good to me too. There is nothing determined and definitive about love. It’s better to say that we are like someone in love rather than asserting that we are in love. Death or birth are definitive; love is nothing but an illusion. We have in this film four people who are like some people in love.

Q. There’s a mystery that takes hold from the very first scene, in which there’s an unseen speaker and it takes awhile for us to figure out the context of the conversation. 

A. I’ve said before that fortunately or unfortunately, I’m unable to be a real storyteller. I’m sure that we can never be the witness of a story from its beginning to its end. I would say that this film doesn’t have an adequate opening and it doesn’t have a real ending either, but it also proves my idea that all films start before we get into them and they end after we leave them. 

In the beginning you’re overhearing a conversation at a bar and gradually you see someone sitting at another table, overhearing the secrets between two people. If someone enters the theater even five seconds after the film has started, they might think they’ve missed a quarter of it. That’s where the mystery comes from: we begin in the middle of things, and the viewer’s mind must be active all the time to understand what’s going on and to have the pleasure of discovery of putting together the pieces of the puzzle and participating in the building of the movie.

I don’t mean to create a distance from the spectator; I want to remind them that they should have the same inquiring spirit for films as in life. If you’re curious you will definitely find enough information – you don’t need more, and whenever we’re given more, we don’t accept it. A good example is pornographic films, which give us too much. That’s not the way it is in real life: it goes against emotions, feelings, sex even. Too much information is a kind of pornography.

Q. When you made “Certified Copy” in Italy, several people likened it to Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy,” and now that you’ve made a film in Japan, some are invoking Yasujiro Ozu, to whom you dedicated your 2003 film “Five.” Are these accurate reference points, or are people being too literal-minded? 

A. I’ll make a film in the States, and if they say it’s like John Ford, then I’ll be able to answer. But as a matter of fact I’ve been influenced by both Rossellini and Ozu, and they were two of my favorite directors even before I was a filmmaker. I suppose it’s quite natural when you go to Ozu’s land to embrace Ozu, and the same with Rossellini too. 

Q. The Japan of “Like Someone in Love” is not the land of impenetrable foreignness that we tend to see through the eyes of non-Japanese filmmakers. It seems very immersed in the textures of everyday life there. 

A. That was an aim from the beginning: not to make a tourist film. In Tokyo you see these crowds of people crossing that famous intersection and everybody’s asking, don’t you want to take a shot like this? And I resisted — I avoided anything too Japanese because I want the film to be seen as universal. I got rid of all touristic attractions and minimized cultural specifics to make it a human film, to feel close to my characters wherever they come from. 

Q. And yet you were compelled to set this particular story in Japan? 

A. Because the kind of relationship that is seen here is more likely to happen in Japan than elsewhere. Maybe Iran would have been even better but it’s difficult for me to make a film in Iran these days with the restrictions. 

This was not really an intention but there was also an assumption in Iran that I was Westernized [after making “Certified Copy”] and at least now that can be denied with this Easternized film. Last night on the red carpet I was thinking to myself that I’ve been coming here for 20 years but this is the first time with Japanese actors and I feel more alienated than ever. People thought after coming with Juliette Binoche I would be a popular director working with bigger stars. But I’d rather go backwards and make the more Ozu-like films I was making at Kanoon [the Institute for the Cognitive Development of Children and Young Adults, where Mr. Kiarostami ran the film department in the late ’60s and early ’70s] at the beginning of my career. Maybe this shows I’m not a very progressive filmmaker.

Q. There are several scenes that take place in a car, your signature location, and you’ve talked about the pleasure of shooting in cars. Were there new challenges to filming driving scenes in Japan? 

A. For one thing the driver [the 82-year-old actor Tadashi Okuno] didn’t know how to drive, and the rules are also much stiffer in Japan than elsewhere. You can imagine how awful it was to make a road movie around Tokyo with an actor who doesn’t know how to drive. 

Via The New York Times
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