Abbas Kiarostami has long been exploring the line between fact and fiction. His 1990 film Close-Up follows a man posing as Iranian director Moshen Makhmalbaf to a well-off family. Twenty years later, Kiarostami came back around to the fact/fiction line in his masterful Certified Copy. There, two strangers tour an Italian village together and then they inexplicably begin to take on the characteristics of a married couple.
These two films explore ideas around representation and the filmic image. How much of reality does the “copy” or the “image” actually represent? What is merely an image in Close-Up, and what reflects the reality of the characters (who play themselves)? Are the couple in Certified Copy merely acting out an elaborate scene due to mutual attraction, or do they have a real and remembered past together? Kiarostami provides no definitive answers to these questions in the films. This ambiguity seems to give a vibrancy and immediacy to film (and art, more broadly) by suggesting that the image of something has a real and particular connection to that which it images. Seen in that light, these films from Kiarostami read as apologies for art, beautifully fashioned visual statements that show us that art matters in whatever form it comes, for art’s fictions cannot help but break into reality.
These thoughts were in my mind at the conclusion of Kiarostami’s most recent feature, Like Someone in Love (2012). Here too the old master explores issues around identity, representation, and image. This is no more clearly seen than in the sequence that stands at the film’s center, a conversation between Akiko (a call girl) and Watanabe (an aged, widowed professor) about a painting—Yazaki’s Training a Parrot—hanging in his home. Akiko reminisces about receiving a print of the painting as a teenager, naively believing her uncle’s assertion that he had painted it with her image in mind. As she describes this memory, she also sets herself in the pose of the woman in the painting, demonstrating the resemblance.
The layers of image are several in this single moment. Moving backwards from most immediate layer to the original, we have the film image itself, Akiko’s pose, uncle’s claim of her being the inspiration for the painting, the copy of the original painting hanging in Watanabe’s home, the original painting that hangs in a Tokyo museum, and finally the moment itself (which may have been posed or simply imagined in the mind of the painter). Each of the moments leading back to the original more or less resemble the original painting, if not the actual inspiration itself, which remains unknown to us. And yet, despite the resemblances from one layer to the next, what we also have here are a series of deceptions. In my view, the film’s story leads us to believe that the deceptions carry the greatest weight.
We don’t see these negative results until these two characters spend some time together, allowing Kiarostami to introduce Akiko’s boyfriend, Noriaki into the mix. He believes his girlfriend to be chaste and faithful to him (though he has had that questioned recently), and comes to believe that the old man is her grandfather. In both cases, Noriaki’s relationships with the two principals—while in one sense connected to reality—are fundamentally based on deceptions. It is those deceptions, rather than any resemblance to reality, that comes to define the narrative.
This leaves the film with a much darker tone than we find in the ambiguities of Close-Up and Certified Copy. Here Kiarostami seems to be wrestling specifically with the way that images deceive, and the tragedies that result. Such misunderstandings introduce a sense of betrayal over what seemed to be real but was in fact merely an image.
However, these deceptions also point us to the posture of Noriaki, whose insistence on nailing down the identities of both Akiko (he wants to marry her to alleviate any falseness he senses in her) and Watanabe (Noriaki merely assumes that Watanabe is her grandfather), leads him to increasing levels of frustration and rage. Rather than simply interacting with them as they present themselves to him, Noriaki seeks to force the issue, and in doing so, creates circumstances where deception thrives.
What we see then is that all are party to the deception, none are without responsibility, and all have some immediate connection to the results. Image or representation in this context takes on something of a complicated character. On the one hand its essential deceptions could lead to tragedy. On the other, if those deceptions are engaged the right way, one might indeed find a path toward unparalleled beauty.