This past September during the New York Film Festival, I got the chance to sit down with beloved filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. His latest enigmatic and complex study of the human heart, Like Someone in Love—the story of a Tokyo student moonlighting as a prostitute who develops a connection with an elderly window—had its New York premiere the night prior to our interview. Alongside a Kiarostami retrospective at Lincoln Center, Like Someone in Love begins its theatrical run this Friday.
Your film was tough.
Tough? Iʼd like to know what you mean by that.
It challenges you.
Yes, but I’m not even talking about this film. I mean generally speaking for a young person like you—what does a ‘toughʼ film mean?
I think something that challenges you emotionally. So many films nowadays are catered towards short attention spans and a film like this, and a film I would find challenging, is something you have to pace yourself through.
Is it down to the fact thereʼs not that much going on and thereʼs not that much action every second?
No, itʼs not there isnʼt enough, itʼs just that you have to stay very engaged or youʼll feel like youʼre missing something.
Well, youʼre not supposed to go into a film to come into it. The film is there to grab you. If it doesn’t, itʼs the filmʼs fault not yours. Iʼm sorry if the film didn’t grab you. Maybe itʼs just because as an audience goes and picks films, maybe films also pick their spectators—they choose all of a sudden to make one person and take them in and the others are in their own thoughts.
I enjoyed that everything is an illusion, especially love. It’s painfully ephemeral. Nothing is solid, forever.
Yes, that’s true—but how do you know this? How does someone as young as you know this?
I guess I’ve just always thought as much, especially with something like love, something as sensitive as love. No one ever really knows anything, do they?
I wonder, what’s happened to you in your life this far that’s made you feel this way? Most people your age think love is the only definitive answer.
Maybe I’m disillusioned. Or just in love.
Well, then I admire you, you graduated early.
Perhaps. Shall we move on?
So what had sparked your interest in making a story that took place in Japan, a place you hadn’t explored before cinematically.
Iʼm not sure how it was triggered. What I do remember, is that when I was a young director—so I wasn’t even nationally acknowledged—it was kind of a joke I would tell my friends, one day Iʼll go and make a film in Japan. Maybe just for the curiosity of just having a close look at new face—faces that have different eyes, different skin, people that sound different to what weʼre familiar with. And now that I’ve become a photographer and Iʼm interested in this kind of details, I think maybe thatʼs where this longing came from, just being able to pace on these faces and look at that up closely.
Why did you decide on the title Like Someone in Love? I feel like it lends itself to the story so well thematically—everything could be an illusion or a disguise—like love—and itʼs more accurate to say that youʼre like someone or these characters are like someone in love than simply in love because love is never just one definite feeling and these people are never simply showing one side of that.
Iʼm so glad you have this answer yourself because otherwise I would have had to tell that to you and I donʼt consider love like anything definite. Not only in time, because itʼs temporary, but even during this temporary moment you donʼt know exactly what state youʼre in and very often you deny it afterwards saying, “No, I wasn’t in love.”
And the title, I remember as a teenage when I liked jazz music, I had already bee stricken by this title and I liked the idea of the approximation of love more than love itself. I had found it interesting and then I had forgotten it, and in the process of the film I remembered there was something like that and I looked for it again. The theme, the music, was also very useful and appropriate for this film.
I was wondering if you think that a lot of films give away too much information to the point where it numbs the audience so they don’t have to answer questions or engage. Thatʼs what I was trying to say before when I said it was challenging. If a film gives away too much then you donʼt have to feel anything from it, but questioning things and learning something from art is kind of a reason for living, right?
Well, I think giving away too much information is being disrespectful to the viewerʼs intelligence and own personality. I think I’ve always believed that spectators are just as creative as filmmakers. Filmmakers happen to have been in touch with a camera and production and so they’ve made something, but it doesn’t mean that people who are there to see the film have nothing to think or nothing to say or donʼt have their own creativity. So I just pay tribute to this creativity, not giving too much information. I have my loyalty to real life and in real life we never say anything to the other and we let the other also bring their own information and their own experience of life in the relationship that have with us, so why should it be different in film because you are sitting in a theater in front of a screen? Do you have to leave your curiosity and your own thinking aside and be fed by the film? Whenever I have the opportunity to see the people who are sitting in a theater after seeing one of my films, I look at their faces and I look at the features of the faces and I suddenly feel responsible and say well, these people look intelligent and thoughtful, they have plenty of things to say and so thereʼs no reason why I should be the one who tells them, they have things to tell me. So I create but then I need their creation back.
Your films deal with things hidden or not said, as well as people changing their relationships and personalities. It’s a reflection of how people have so many varied people inside them, but usually in film we only see this one person. Your films, they allow us to see one person brought to life in all their personalities.
Yes, this again is only loyalty to the real complex nature of human beings. I think even painters in classic paintings, they tried to show the soul of the portrait, of the human beings that they were drawing or painting because they realized that human beings were not uni-dimensional. So there was no reason why they couldn’t try and give something to this complexity of this plain character, this fool character. So in cinema, we have moving images, we have three dimensional images and why should we show people just as blind characters. Of course they are complex, and this complexity and even this secretiveness is part of human nature. Your soul dictates you not to reveal yourself immediately and not to appear naked and to have your own complexity, your own intelligence. So this intelligence should be considered. It has been in art and paintings so it definitely should be in filmmaking too.
Being a filmmaker in a foreign country where you donʼt speak the language and are dealing with the sensibility of a new world, do you think that informs the type of film that youʼre making and changes you as an artist?
There is no doubt that there must be an impact at least. It makes me write all the details of a script and of dialogue which I usually wouldnʼt do if I were in my home country and the distance that I have with actors who are not speaking my language and who are not from the same culture as mine. So it does have an impact on my work. But then I think the result, which is the film thatʼs made, should be taken in its autonomy and in its own existence without wondering what it would have been if it had been under different circumstances. It should be taken as it is and it should be looked at as with itʼs own specificities here and now, not wondering what else it could have been.