A young woman checks her voicemail in the back of a cab she didn’t pay for. Her grandmother, visiting Tokyo, has left her six messages over the course of the day: a hopeful invitation to lunch; an apology that she has briefly left the station to eat soup; a final plea to meet before her train leaves; the pained realisation that she is not going to see her granddaughter. Buried within these recordings, at around 4pm, the old woman leaves this message:
Hello? I’m back in the station and there’s a photo stuck up in the booth. The girl looks just like you. She looks like you, but she’s different. She’s winking and smiling. I called the number beneath the photo and a man answered. He wasn’t very friendly, so I’m calling back on this number.
They both know that it is, of course, the granddaughter in the picture — why else would her grandmother call the number printed on it? But her reluctance to believe that her “intelligent and reasonable” granddaughter would pose for such a photo is the kind of wilful misperception that serves as the basis of Abbas Kiarostami’s first two films of the 2010s, Certified Copy and Like Someone In Love, two films which posit variations of the same question: is it better to believe a beautiful fiction or a painful truth?
Specifically, both of these films are about (re)finding love. In Certified Copy, a British author is in Tuscany to discuss his award-winning essay on the artistic value of a forgery if all art is a copy of something else. He meets a French antiques dealer, and the two travel around the Tuscan countryside discussing art, life, and love. At a coffee shop, the two are mistaken for a married couple, and a game of shifting identities begins, continually blurring the boundaries between what we know is real and what we perceive as real. We saw these two people meet earlier that same day, yet their deeply felt love for each other seems undeniable. The facts make everything false but the fiction seems so real.
In Like Someone In Love, the aforementioned young woman, a student paying her way in Tokyo by working secretly as an escort, is pressured into staying the night with an elderly client, an esteemed university professor and translator. This brief, transactional relationship develops into something mutually familial, yet her violent, abusive boyfriend, who, upon inviting himself into the professor’s car, assumes he is her grandfather, remains suspicious. This paid for relationship is the only positive thing in her life, yet it is doomed to remain a secret. The professor is not her grandfather, he’s her client, and nobody would see their relationship for what it really is if they knew that. The facts, that a lonely old man paid a young escort to stay overnight in his home, create a fiction, while the misperception, blind to the facts, tells the truth. Truth and fiction are both entirely separate and exactly the same.
But does it even matter that the professor isn’t really her grandfather, or that the antiques dealer and the author aren’t really husband and wife, if the world perceives them to be so? The version of the song Like Someone In Love used in the film is sung by Ella Fitzgerald, not original performer Dinah Shore, or even Bing Crosby, who made it a hit in 1945, but it’s still beautiful. And in Certified Copy, the author opens the discussion of his essay by thanking its Italian translator, “whose translation is simply perfect — he’s really conveyed the spirit of my book,” while decrying the lack of interest in the original English version back home in England. If all art is a reproduction of itself, and if a copy shares the same “spirit” as the original, if not the literal details, then why can’t love be a fiction if it feels like a truth? Why does the antiques dealer reenact a painful romance with a stranger and not her absent husband? And why does the young escort turn to her client for sanctuary from her violent boyfriend and not her family?
Perhaps their lives are too painful to address head-on. Can a pretend relationship with a false history take the place of a lost relationship with a real history? Can it deliver a kind of catharsis, or are these unreal relationships a method of distancing oneself from painful reality? As the young woman listens back to her voicemails in the back of a cab in Like Someone in Love, her face overwhelmed by the translucent reflections of a city, she asks the driver to pass by the station. As they drive past, she sees her grandmother from the car — but she doesn’t stop to speak to her; she just wants to look at her, and her eyes fill with tears as they leave. She doesn’t want her grandmother to know how she lives because that would dispel the misperception, and having her family know the truth of her life would hurt more than enduring in secret.
But where Like Someone in Love is a film about fiction doomed by reality, Certified Copy is fiction unencumbered by truth, and there’s no better illustration of this fundamental difference than in Kiarostami’s treatment of glass. In Certified Copy, as the mistaken husband and wife sit in a Tuscan restaurant, they see a bride and groom they met earlier through a window in the garden outside. As she (as she’s credited) makes eye contact with the young lovers through the glass she walks to the window to speak to them, but they cannot hear her, and she can’t hear them. Conversely, in Like Someone in Love, the window in the professor’s upstairs apartment leaks all the sound from outside: cars, voices, planes. There’s a whole world that’s impossible to keep out, yet, in Tuscany, this couple inhabit a world sealed away, observable but untouchable, like a painting behind a frame. Something fragile and something enduring, something real and something false. A beautiful fiction and a painful truth.