Every week or so, Sook-Yin Lee and Adam Litovitz have a movie date. Then they talk about the movie. Discussed this week: Like Someone in Love by Abbas Kiarostami.
ADAM: It’s interesting that we’re using two recorders to deal with this movie in particular.
SOOK-YIN: I have an old-school cassette Walkman recorder with tiny disco lights. It’s very tactile and the buttons go clunk when you push them. Somehow I trust this technology to record our conversation more than your iPhone, which I can’t text with at all. I’m all thumbs.
ADAM: It also makes sense that we’re using two recorders to deal with this particular movie about resemblances, about things that weren’t necessarily the actual thing itself, but seemed like it—sort of like [Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s last film] Certified Copy.
SOOK-YIN: Kiarostami’s latest, the Japanese-set Like Someone in Love, is about a university student/sex worker named Akiko who has a jealous fiancée, and an elderly, professorial john who tries to teach them about love. At first, I thought it would be an indictment of the sex industry, but Kiarostami thwarts our expectations. Akiko is befriended by the john, yet her boyfriend is prone to violence. He resorts to aggression to make her into a good woman.
ADAM: Her boyfriend is very traditional. There was a collective groan in the audience when the fiancée says that marriage will “tame” her. It’s throwing back to Taming of the Shrew, or something like that—this belief that changing the linguistic definition or a symbolic move is going to suddenly change the nature of a relation, which it can.
SOOK-YIN: His desire for marriage is rooted in a need to control her. Once they are married, he believes she will only be in love with him. Surprisingly it’s not her fiancée who attempts to offer real love, but the john.
ADAM: I don’t think his love is any more real. There’s a sense that it’s haunted by artifice—even the moments when the professor starts using the expression “what will be will be” to calm Akiko, then slips into the song, “Que Sera Sera.” The same thing happens with the song “Like Someone in Love.” It’s taking songs with these clichéd, broad sentiments and turning them into functional entities.
SOOK-YIN: You get a sense from the john that he’s made plenty of mistakes in his past and has learned from them. He offers this advice: you’ll be right for marriage when you stop asking questions of your lover and demanding answers. Let them be. “Que Sera Sera.” It’s very idealistic.
ADAM: I don’t think it’s suggesting that the older man has access to wisdom beyond any other characters. I feel like the moments showing Akiko and the elderly man sleeping in their cars show they’re both in the same situation. They’re both thrust into this world full of noise and…
ADAM: Systems and things that overlap and contradict each other. There’s the moment when Akiko comes into the professor’s place for the first time and he gets a call and he has to do translation work. Meanwhile, she snoops around. The work never stops. It penetrates the field of play, and the field of play penetrates the field of work. Similarly, the day after the professor and Akiko have their first “date” he still has wine glasses out—meanwhile, he’s cooking milk for her to take care of her. He’s playing multiple roles, the lover and mother figures. There are several roles played, but they overlap and come into contact in strange ways.
SOOK-YIN: It’s odd too that the john is a well-regarded intellect whose academic study examines the roots of violence in society. He’s an amiable old scholar who is met with violence when her fiancée misunderstands him.
ADAM: Yet there are also moments of openness and possibility. Like when the professor and fiancée come into contact for the first time in the car. They each have to ask each other: “Who are you?” There’s a sense that they have to invent the right version of themselves for the other in order to communicate. The fiancée even ends up fixing the professor’s car.
SOOK-YIN: I think we’re many things to each other. You never know where this movie is going. At times it feels like a quirky comedy of errors, sweet-hearted, but on a dime it turns ugly.
Kiarostami seems to feel a great empathy toward women, telling stories about female subjugation, but I found Akiko kind of annoying—she was so passive and pretty even when she’s persecuted. I felt like that was a weakness in this movie. I was frustrated by how wimpy and hard done-by she was. Akiko is inactive and never serves her own needs. She wants to see her grandma who’s visiting from far away, but her boss convinces her not to. She acquiesces to his demands. At every turn she’s victimized.
ADAM: But there’s something else to it. You see Akiko taking command during the “date.” She’s really good at doing what she needs to do with the client. She makes jokes, talks about the paintings in his place, takes interest in his stuff, and compliments him—all really seamlessly. She hops into his bed.
SOOK-YIN: In that situation, she’s delightful, and makes charming observations, reminding me of the inclination in French art house movies toward whimsical but ultimately self-destructive women. And the professorial john is so benign and affable. He doesn’t even want to have sex with her. He just wants to drink wine and revisit his wounded lost love. He shows Akiko pictures of his daughter and ex-wife.
This movie made me question my convictions around romantic, monogamous love, even in terms of our own relationship. Do I only sleep with you? Can we have a relationship that allows us to be with other people?
ADAM: The answer is no.
ADAM: Because I’m not comfortable with it.
SOOK-YIN: Isn’t that the same reason why Akiko’s jealous fiancée turns to violence in order to control her? There’s a constant aggression in his needing to know what she is up to and poking and prodding. His love is expressed in jealousy, rage, and disappointment that careens into violence. It’s the shadow side of love. The question is: what is more loving, to love with or without condition?
ADAM: In my case, I wouldn’t be able to be with someone who’s in romantic love with someone else.
SOOK-YIN: And yet, this movie shows, we’re capable of loving many people.
ADAM: Akiko needs a kind of safety that you can only get from one other person’s care.
SOOK-YIN: But the prof never imposes it upon her. He wants to love unconditionally. He advises Akiko’s fiancée that he’s too controlling, doesn’t know how to trust, and isn’t ready for real love and real marriage.
ADAM: At the end you see something imperiling his conviction. The prof’s version of love is another form of idealism that’s being attacked.
SOOK-YIN: It’s a chaotic collision of belief systems. The peaceful unconditionally loving john is confronted by the irrational and possessive fiancée.
ADAM: The fiancée’s looking for tradition and marriage as a symbol of ownership. But, he also doesn’t seem to know Akiko. All the characters have these difficulties recognizing each other.
SOOK-YIN: She says she can’t even remember why she wants to be with her boyfriend.
ADAM: Akiko thinks she resembles the professor’s ex-wife, even though she doesn’t. Is this role-playing? The first conversation in the film is about lying—and we don’t know how much of what she’s going through is performative or authentic.
SOOK-YIN: For the professor, Akiko reminds him of his wife and daughter, and he wishes to repair that broken relationship by caring for Akiko. We’re constantly projecting these needs on others, and they don’t necessarily serve the needs of the person we’re trying to care for.
ADAM: We have to pretend to know a person to deal with them, but we can’t know them, or what kind of soup they’ll want to eat at any particular moment. They could fall in love with someone else. The title “Like Someone in Love”—it’s a play of resemblances.
SOOK-YIN: Do you think you know me well?
ADAM: Nobody can know anybody really well, but they can deal with a play of shadows and have provisional truths.
SOOK-YIN: I think I know you some. I think I love you. And I think you have a pair of glasses that make you look smart. Whether or not that’s accurate, I know you are smart.