The very title of Abbas Kiarostami’s Tokyo-set character waltz “Like Someone in Love” — named for the jazz standard Ella Fitzgerald croons on the soundtrack — promises something as woozily romantic as “Certified Copy,” his 2010 cat’s cradle of lovers’ memories. As it turns out, it’s the first, not the last, word of the title that’s key to this droll, elegant but faintly trying study in emotional artifice. An unofficial twin to “Copy,” sharing its playful preoccupation with identities mistaken and assumed, it’s a more austere and less intellectual work, certainly less attractive to distribs, though auteur cachet should see it through.
Kiarostami’s second film set and shot outside his native Iran continues his exploration of other global territories as a direct means of expressing certain cinephilic affections. Just as the Tuscany-set “Certified Copy” casually traced around multiple aspects of Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy,” the spartan Tokyo story of “Like Someone in Love” is laced with references to the filmography of Yasujiro Ozu, from obvious narrative cues like a young woman’s affectless neglect of her visiting grandmother to subtler variations on the Japanese master’s framing. Quite what the homage is supporting is harder to gauge, as Kiarostami’s breezy, sometimes cruel tale of mistaken identity reads as a near-parody of Ozu’s still-waters humanism.
A protracted, circuitously revealed opening sequence in a restaurant sets the tone for what’s to come, as we’re introduced to Akiko (Rin Takanishi) voice-first, holding up one deceitful half of a cell-phone conversation to her boyfriend, as the camera fixates instead on her cherry-haired friend Nagisa (Reiko Mori). It’s a disorienting tactic, one of many occasions when Kiarostami methodically splits interdependent elements of a scene: withholding intimacy by fixing conversations in rigid shot-reverse-shot patterns, or denying the audience a view of a painting being discussed in detail by two characters.
With even simple information being so frugally passed out, the film constructs more of an enigma around Akiko than the character might warrant. A demurely pretty, averagely bright sociology student, she funds her college tuition by working nights as a high-class escort, and is in the restaurant to receive details of her latest client, retired sociology professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). Arriving at his house, she finds the lonely old man more eager to play house than have sex, and falls asleep in his bedroom. The next morning, she allows him to give her a ride to class, crossing paths with her volatile boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), who not unreasonably assumes the kindly prof is Akiko’s grandfather.
It’s when neither Takashi nor Akiko directly corrects him that the games begin, albeit still in a rather minor key. The two accept their new roles of, respectively, guardian and granddaughter — or, given their shared academic field, student and master — with the impassive good grace of actors assigned roles in a play. (Given her callous screening of her real grandmother’s calls, Akiko certainly doesn’t seem to be crying out for extra seniors in her life.)
Their role-playing routine isn’t as richly ambiguous as that enacted by the strangers/lovers in “Certified Copy”; nor does it lead anywhere particularly consequential. Indeed, it’s Noriaki’s confused envy over the situation that drives the rhythmically quickened finale, the punctuating incident of which feels more like a punchline than a conclusion. The film’s 109-minute running time seems generous for a high-end trifle, but if it somehow winds up feeling shorter than it is, it’s hard to say what we still desire or expect from this opaque triangle of characters. After his atypical star collaboration with Juliette Binoche, the perfs feel more subserviently integrated into the concept this time, although they’re all accomplished, particularly Okuno’s dryly quizzical sad-sack.
Not entirely satisfying as either an academic or an emotional exercise, “Like Someone in Love” offers its most complete pleasures as a quietly pristine showcase for Kiarostami’s undiminished craft, its most laborious stretches still wowing with their poised camera placement and confidently spare editing schemes. (Kiarostami’s son, Bahman, is once more holding the scissors.)
This being a Kiarostami film, long, unbroken takes of characters driving or being driven are the order of the day, peaking with a bravura cross-city sequence in the back of a taxi, Tokyo’s familiar chaos of lights coloring Akiko’s face as she checks her voicemails in real time. Abetted by Toshihiro Isomi’s geometric, wheaten-hued production design, lenser Katsumi Yanagijima, best known for more ostentiously impressive work on Takeshi Kitano’s films, gives the proceedings an airy, brisk feel, precise even in its murk — a paradox that could as easily be applied to the film’s storytelling.