05/22/2012 09:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cannes 2012: Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love -- A Light Surprise

It floats like a cherry blossom in a forest, light and pretty. Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love, which premiered this week in Cannes, tells the story of a beautiful young prostitute in Tokyo and her charming rapport with an elderly prof, and the comic difficulties with her fiance which ensue.

I watched it as I would watch a pink petal drift in the breeze.

"If you see beauty in the film, it should expand to your own gaze," Kiarostami joked with me, at the cocktail party in his honor on the Martini terrace, the waves crashing in the distance.

The most curious aspect of the film -- which Kiarostami admitted he had been asked about "27 times" -- is that it takes place in Japan, in Japanese, with an-all Japanese cast, and was made by a Japanese crew, co-produced with Uni-Japan (who co-finance ten European films a year) and yet Kiarostami is, as we know, Iranian -- and does not speak a word of Japanese himself.

Why Japan?

Kiarostami--energetic and calm at the same time -- was clear in his answer:

Because beautiful stories happen in Japan that are less likely to happen elsewhere. There is still a generation of people there that don't exist anywhere else. Let me tell you a story that explains. The professor's flat you see in the film was built by a Japanese set designer. The details were so beautiful, I felt frustrated I could not show them all in the film. Now do you remember at the end of the film, when we refer to a book by Kierkegaard one that he had written by hand? I would say the set designer hand-wrote the set.

Kiarostami raised his eyebrows with admiration.

When the movie was finished, I told the set decorator I was sorry to not have been able to show his work extensively. His response: " I did not expect you to show it." He opened the kitchen cupboard and took a coffee box from it. 'See this coffee,' he said. "You cannot find this coffee in Tokyo anywhere. I am sure the professor would be the kind of man who would buy this coffee." It came from Kyoto, and yet we never see this coffee. It stays in the box.

The question of aesthetics is, perhaps, the real point of this film in which the characters are lightly drawn, and the story remains bare. A painting of a Japanese geisha hangs in the professor's apartment where the young girl first goes to be a "trick" for the night. When the girl notes with delight that the same painting hangs in her childhood room as well (at least its reproduction), the professor exclaims that the painting is indeed special. It is the first traditional Japanese painting which has a European style and a Japanese theme: a metaphor, Kiarostami confided, for his film. A European styled film, about a Japanese girl.


Did Kiarostami feel any qualms making a film about a culture that was not his?

"No qualms at all. On the contrary, I felt an obligation. Art should be free from your own roots. Otherwise your world is restricted to what you know."

He added that his way of approaching Japanese aesthetics in this film was to make still shots as large as possible.

What about the subtext of this film? The rapport the girl has with the kindly old professor is actually better than with her handsome young fiancé: could Kiarostami be implying that older men are better for young girls?

He grinned.

I am not giving any advice, but it sounds natural to me. Older men are better. I think when you are young you are more emotional. It doesn't mean that older people are emotionless but they can control their feelings, hence are more concentrated on knowing the other person. It would be awful if it was the reverse: if it were the old man who hit the girl, and the boy was the one who was taking care of her. The good thing about the professor is that he is already all there. That is the good thing about aging; you face your own truth. There are no more ideals left about who you are.

One nice thing about the film, for me, is that the old man/young girl rapport does not end up a total male fantasy: no sexual or sensual details are filmed.

Kiarostami seemed happy that I had noticed. He waved open his arms: "I think sexual and sensual scenes are something very private, and I would rather not look at private things. The first time I went on a bus in Rome, I was in my twenties, and I saw a boy and a girl kissing each other, and I was staring at them, because it was the first time for me. But nobody else was looking at them. This must mean something. You can't put sex in a film. If people avoid looking at it in a bus, why should they look at it in a film?"

One last question for Mr. Kiarostami. Here, as in many of his films,a long scene is a whimsical conversation in a car: as the professor, girl and boy all drive along together in Tokyo.

Could he comment?

"I promise," Kiarostami raised his hand with a grin. "Not to put a car in my next film!"

Kiarostami Party (with Kiarostami too):

Video and photo by Karin Badt