Sunday, March 31, 2013

"Lonely as this finger": Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love

(Note: My essay on Kiarostami's earlier, companion film, Certified Copy, may be found here: )


I recently dipped back into Russian literature - after too a long hiatus - with Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, a gripping read that caught at my heart as much as it stimulated my mind, in the way that only the emotionally vehement and intellectually rigorous Russian writers seem to be able to do. The novel has clear philosophical and political themes, but the book centers on human relationships - between parents and children, between friends, between lovers, between gentry and peasantry - and on the way those relationships constantly shift and communication fails, especially under the strain of a generation gap, a gender gap, a class gap. In one scene, a husband and wife comfort one another in the sudden, careless departure of their son, a son whom they love so dearly but do not really understand and do not really commune with on any level:

 "'He has gone, left us!' [the father] faltered. 'Gone, because he found it dull here with us. I'm a lonely man now, lonely as this finger,' he repeated again and again, and each time he thrust out his hand with his forefinger pointing away from the rest. Then [his wife] came to his side and pressing her grey head to his grey head, she said: 'It can't be helped, Vasya. A son is an independent person. He's like a falcon that comes when he will and flies off when he lists; but you and I are like the funguses growing in hollow tree: here we sit side by side, not budging an inch.'"

"Lonely as this finger," connected but always separate from the hand. And even on a deathbed later on, parents and son are separate; they do not understand one another no matter how much blood joins them, no matter how much one may yearn for the other.

The relationships in this masterful book, speak so truly and poignantly about the human problem of communication: we long for a connection, we long to understand and be understood, we long for something real with one another - but we are always aware of something we are missing, a connection not quite made, a communication not quite fully received, even in the healthiest of relationships.

And even at the meta-level in my reading experience with this book, this moving story, I was aware, as I always am with Russian literature, that it is a translation. In an odd word choice that puzzles me, in a strange interchange between characters where I don't understand a motivation, I am aware, however much I become invested in the lives and characters of the novel, that I am missing something. With my inevitable limitations as an English speaker, as an American - as someone who does not know Russian, who is not Russian - I miss something. Always. In reading a translated book, I am ever aware of this - and I mourn what I cannot have - but my interaction with a translated book only brings to the fore something that is always true, in every communication I send, in every communication I receive: that we are working with signs and symbols, and we do not always fully understand what the sign signifies and what the symbol represents - and that, at an even more basic level, the sign will never be the thing it signifies. If I have only the sign, I do not have the signified. Literary critics, the deconstructionists in particular perhaps, have articulated this problem – the best they can, that is, with the limitations of words. Communication will always break down, will always be imperfect.  And yet, at a practical level, we cannot remain in a state in which we point out the limitations of every sign and symbol; however limited, we strive to communicate with one another, to understand one another, and we hope to make contact; we hope for communion, for intimacy, and for love.

Abbas Kiraostami's most recent film, Like Someone in Love, a companion piece to his 2010 film, Certified Copy, understands our problem and understands our desire: it understands our strivings for connection in the midst of a world where we always strain to see, to hear, to understand.

Running as a stream over, under, and through the film, noises that are a mere background to the main story constantly distract us and deflect our attention – they burden our strain to listen and to understand: music, conversations, traffic sounds. Even inside what should be the quiet of a car or inside the walls of an apartment, the exterior noises intrude in every moment. And our vision, too, as much our aural sense, is constantly obstructed and distracted: we see our characters through a curtain or from a distance and behind objects; we see them as a likeness in a photo, in a hazy reflection, or through a window that is reflecting something or someone else.  Layers of other sights and sounds come between us and our object, and we are aware of the constant decisions we must make in each moment - what do I listen to? what do I look at? what is most important? how do I interpret this thing I see and hear only so imperfectly?

The opening scene of the film beautifully encapsulates the struggle throughout the film to discern, perceive, and understand. The scene is a humming restaurant, or a bar, rather - a pleasant place, where the conversation seems friendly and lively, where the music falls pleasantly on the ear, where groups of people sit or stand in animated groups - talking, laughing, leaning in and out, making gestures. And through it all, the sound of one woman's voice rises, slightly louder than the rest and arrests - or barely arrests - our attention, gradually drawing our curiosity. The camera stays still for a long time, letting us take in the whole scene - a wide frame - without giving us hints of whom we should look at or listen to. Whose voice is it? Is it someone with those standing in that group in the background on the right? What about in that group of three in the middle, sitting at the table? Or perhaps the red-headed woman in the foreground to the right? We strain to match the sound of the voice to one person's lips. We think, for a moment, we've succeeded, and then, stop and doubt the match. 

But the camera eventually shifts and gives us some direction, and we see the speaker is a woman on a phone who has been out of sight, just behind the camera's gaze. And so we do begin to focus on her, to try to listen, but her words are out-of-context; we hear the words - or read them, rather, since the film is in Japanese, translated for us, we hope with some accuracy, into English words that appear on the screen - and we understand the words individually and in groups, but the clues as to who she is and whom she's speaking to build only gradually - and we doubt our guesses about this overheard slice of a conversation. 

The scene continues in this vein, and we finally understand whom we are to focus on, but she is often out of sight still, and the camera focuses on the person she is speaking to or on another group who isn't even aware of her: it focuses on the group of three at the table; or on the red-headed woman, who seems to be a friend, maybe a colleague; or on an older man, who seems to know her well.  And still the bar sounds and activity constantly intrude - we follow people going in and out, listen to and see the door open and close, sense the constant conversations - and with all of these distractions, we continue to try to understand who the woman is, who the red-headed woman is, who the man is and what they all are to each other. The man, we guess, is a boss - and owner of the bar? - but he seems to treat her in an almost familial fashion - a father? But, then, that doesn't quite fit; they don't act like father and daughter - the relationship isn't somehow familiar enough. The red-headed woman seems to be a friend, clearly listening in on the phone conversation, even speaking into the phone herself to the caller, but the two women are not together at the same table; the red-headed woman seems to be with someone else, someone who is mostly just out of our range of vision. There's something familial about the relationship between the women, too, but something there doesn't quite fit that label either.

Who the women are and who the boss man is becomes clear as the film goes on - we learn the main woman's name, Akiko -  but the guesses we make about what their words mean in full, about who they are, and what they are, and how they are related to each other represent the bigger thread of guesses and imperfect assumptions and interpretations running throughout the film. We make guesses about the characters of the film; they make guesses about one another. By the end, who the characters actually are is clear, but what they mean to each other and how we might define, once and for all, their relationships eludes both them and us.

But the desire for a meaningful relationship, for intimacy - for a true connection and defined roles - is no less urgent, perhaps all the more urgent, as interpretations go awry and as modes of communication fail: as phone messages go unanswered or a phone is left to ring, or a phone is disconnected; as a pounding on a door is ignored; as a specific car horn is subsumed among the other traffic noises; as a line of print is inadvertently left out of a book; as a request to move a car is ignored; as a whisper is too quiet, a gesture too obscure.  Throughout the failures in communication and interpretation, we see the urgent desire for relationship and for closeness in key moments and through key characters - through Akiko’s boyfriend's tracking of her, and through his decision to marry her so that, as he says, she will be forced to be with him, so that she will have to answer his questions, so that she will not lie to him anymore; we see it through an old widowed professor's invitation to a call-girl - our Akiko, as it turns out - where we soon realize he does not want the false intimacy of purchased sex but something nearer to companionship, a shared meal, a conversation over a glass of wine, something like the intimacy he shared with his deceased wife perhaps.

And while those moments and characters are certainly most central to the film, they are highlighted most beautifully, for me, through another scene representing the longing for relationship and the simultaneous failure of communication - through some smaller moments relative to our main character, Akiko, and to her grandmother. As Akiko rides, via taxi, through the city at night for her meeting with the professor, she listens to her phone messages, ear buds dangling from her ears; the camera remains on her face - luminous and beautiful but impassive.

There are seven messages, most from her grandmother, who has arrived in Tokyo and who wants to meet with Akiko. The series of messages take us through the grandmother's day: in the first message, she is riding on the train, nearing Tokyo, looking forward to seeing Akiko; in the next message, she has arrived, and she tells Akiko where she is and that she will wait for her - she hopes for  a lunch with her granddaughter; in the next, it is lunch time, and she has resigned herself to lunch without Akiko; in the next, she describes finding a picture of a woman that looked like Akiko in the phone booth - she says she knows it couldn't be Akiko, but she calls anyway - perhaps, somehow, she will make contact this way - but only an ill-pleased man answers; in the final message, she has returned to the train station - it is nearing the train's departure time, and she will wait for Akiko under a statue at the station. The longing for her granddaughter runs throughout each message - though we understand the grandmother has long lost touch with the real Akiko - we become more gripped with each message, waiting with each to hear where the grandmother is, if she's given up, and wondering if there is still time for Akiko to get to the station.

Akiko's impassivity - a constant throughout the messages - breaks as she listens to her grandmother's final words, and she asks the driver if the train station is nearby. What will she do? We so long for her to run to her patiently waiting grandmother and to embrace her.

As the taxi moves past the station, we rejoice at a first glimpse of the statue and then, straining, we finally spot an aged figure standing underneath it. But as we move past, other cars obstruct our vision, people walk in front of us, and the car carrying Akiko doesn't stop; the woman we believe to be Grandmother is out of sight. Once more around, Akiko asks, and we strain, again, with Akiko, to see that small, waiting figure, craning our necks, almost, to see around the obstructions. We see her, but she is soon lost to sight once again, and the car, carrying Akiko and the chance for a connection, moves on. The gentle tension and longing of the scene paired as it is with those things blocking the connection is so beautifully realized, suffused with tenderness, but it also relentlessly backs away from a fulfillment for that tenderness, backs away from a possible connection.

What would have happened if Akiko and her grandmother had met? Was that woman beneath the statue really Akiko's grandmother? Akiko clearly believed her to be, and perhaps that emotional reality is what mattered most as the taxi passed the station. For Akiko, the woman was her grandmother, not just like her, and she decided to reject the connection with her.

Likenesses and surrogates run through the film - Akiko is mistaken for a granddaughter, the professor is mistaken for Akiko's grandfather, and these mistakes are not corrected.  And Akiko tells a story about when she believed, as a young girl, that a famous painting was a portrait of herself - and she still half believes it is though she knows it isn't she. She lifts her hair into a bun, imitating the woman of the portrait and showing just how similar she is to the painted woman.

Likenesses, surrogates, translations - they are not the originals, but perhaps the translation is all we have.  Even the most astute translator of words and of people - the professor, who is both a translator and sociologist, with his house full of well-thumbed books and a mind full of research - cannot find a way to communicate with perfect precision with those around him. His ability to perceive, like anyone's, is flawed and his ability to communicate is flawed. His manuscript suffers an imperfect printing; he cannot express what he really wants from Akiko; he falls asleep when he should be paying attention; he repeats only a portion of a conversation when he is asked for the whole; he backs out of his driveway, blind, nearly hitting a woman and her children; he wants to protect Akiko but wanders from window to window when she is threatened, unable to get a clear view and unsure of how to act.

But for all his flawed communications and failed connections and even with Akiko's own failed connection with her grandmother, the professor and Akiko find in one another, something like a familial relationship that feels true. He says, at one point, almost playfully but also seriously, he will act as grandfather to her, and later, when she needs a grandfather, she calls him. We are aware of a kind of emotional reality between them, however tenuous and shifting the relationship.

And the film's final scene offers another kind of emotional reality as it brings about a sort of violent end to the film’s train of constantly obstructed communications – obstructed communications between film and viewer, between film character and film character. A stone is thrown - it's sudden, elemental, violent; it is a barbaric communication, but it forms, for us, almost a relief: a concrete something that transmits one, clear, specific thing, emotional frustration and anger; there is no questioning its message.  The stone shatters a glass window – glass like the glassy surfaces we see throughout the film - glass that hides something by a reflective surface and simultaneously allows a view to something; glass that has kept out noise and let noise seep in; glass that has reflected people and distorted people.

The glass that has half blocked and half allowed sounds and sights shatters almost joyously, if terrifyingly, removing, if only for a moment, the questions about what a symbol means and the questions about what one person is to another.  “Talk to me,” this moment screams; "I need to know you hear me, not through a phone, not through an intercom, not through a car window, not through a glass darkly, but directly." 

Because the moment is so sudden and violent, we understand it cannot maintain itself and it will not bring about trusting intimacy. But we do understand it in itself ; we understand the rage and the desire that brought it about. And it does feel like a relief, as thwarted as we have been throughout the film, so distracted by other things, voices, sounds, sights, that we have yearned for focus and one specific moment of clarity, for a specific moment of truthful contact.

And with that we leave the film’s world. And whether we leave hopeful or in despair will perhaps depend on our own hope for true contact in a world of signs and symbols, likenesses and translations.

For my part, I am hopeful. My reading of Turgenev will always only be an imperfect one; my reading of anything and anyone will always only be imperfect. But even with a translation, I find those moments of emotional contact. My heart weeps with Turgenev’s parents, bereft and separated for their son – and my emotion is real, however, flawed is my perception of the relationship and of the language. And my heart rejoices in the moments of something like familial connection between the professor and Akiko – they are like a granddaughter and grandfather – and for me, it is enough.


  1. On first viewing, I did not think of the film specifically in terms of communication, but I cannot wait to see it again having read your essay. I think lack of communication - or failed/distorted communication - was a major theme in 'Margaret' - but instead of an wordless embrace between mother and daughter as a catharsis, we get a much more challenging conclusion to 'Like Someone in Love.' It was hard NOT to be a bit disappointed in the latter - yet I think the disappointment is not intellectual or artistic, but an emotional one (i.e., not knowing what will happen). For me, 'Like Someone in Love' fostered a stronger emotional connection to the characters than 'Certified Copy,' but I think I'm in the minority there.

    Your reference to 'Fathers and Sons' made me smile. I read Dostoevsky's 'The Double' a couple months back (for a film essay, no less) and found it very difficult. I also kept thinking, "Is something getting lost in the translation?" (Of course, the fact that the main character is falling into schizophrenia doesn't help matters.) In any case, it's always wonderful to see how you contextualize your experience of film.

    1. Oh, great parallel to MARGARET! Thematically overall, there are so many connections (just the sound design - so similar, right?), and the ending as well. But yes, I think LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE is certainly less emotionally satisfying an ending than Lonergan's - but I'm liking, even loving, LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE's ending more and more upon reflection. The film feels like a whole piece to me - the ending a vital part of it. It's brutal, but I can't do without it.

      It's interesting - I didn't sit down to write about the film with Turgenev -and my experience with it - in mind, but I saw the book sitting there and something clicked. I'm not sure if it's because I've been a literature person my whole life (and only relatively recently such a rabid cinephile) that I find my way into films via books, but I often do. :)

  2. Fantastic once again, Melissa. I keyed on the films use of performance, and therefore cinema itself as a distortion of reality, but putting it in terms of translation and the inevitable failure of true communication though language is brilliant, and not just because it integrates the professor's job (and his incessantly ringing phone) into the film's theme.

    Where Certified Copy is exceptionally open to interpretation, where basic physical laws seem not to apply (the couple is and is not married), Like Someone seems to me exceptionally tight, hermetically sealed and self-contained, all the parts reflecting the whole. This is why I think the ending is so shattering, and ultimately so hopeful.

    1. Thanks, Sean! Yes, connecting the film's ideas/characters/images to translation really opened up the film for me in the sense that I was able to connect so many of the film's parts - and to find a central thread or tissue. (It seems fortuitous that I happened to have just read Turgenev!)

      And yes, while I love Certified Copy (like Tabu, perhaps, one of those marvellously tantalizing films that can be ruminated on for so long and approached from so many different, equally interesting, angles), Like Someone in Love has a punchiness, a tightness, as you say, that left me exhilarated at the end, and I was able to connect with emotionally immediately.

      I can't wait to see what Kiarostami will make next!