PRINT January 2017


Abbas Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami, Doors Without Keys (detail), 2015, fifty digital prints on canvas, audio, dimensions variable.

ABBAS KIAROSTAMI’S grievously premature death this past July transformed two of his final works, the art installation Doors Without Keys, 2015, and the film Like Someone in Love (2012), into inadvertent requiems. To discern portents of mortality in the last creations of artists whose expiry is untimely—Mozart’s unfinished Requiem being the most famous and vexing example—is a perilous game, but that has never stopped critics from reading Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) or Pasolini’s Salò (1975) as auguries of their makers’ own willed demise. Though Kiarostami’s optimistic humanism, his determination to wrest from privation and catastrophe a cinema of “complexity, finesse, of poetry,” as he had recently avowed, refutes any such drastic interpretation, both Doors and Like Someone in Love now prove disquieting as unintentional elegies, the former for its aesthetic impasse, the latter for its atypical aura of violence.

As polymathic as his great admirer Satyajit Ray, with whom the Iranian director shared many things, including an education in visual design, Kiarostami counted carpentry among his various accomplishments. A hobby that provided solace from the rigors of filmmaking, woodworking doubtless drew his eye to the timbered doors he photographed while journeying in Italy, Iran, France, and Morocco. For Doors Without Keys, made for the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto—a commission he reportedly felt uneasy about, given his impiety—Kiarostami printed on canvas life-size photographs of locked entries, giving them a sculptural materiality. Arranged in a maze, elaborated by scrims and scripts—Kiarostami’s evocative haikus and runic observations graced various walls—the timeworn portals, peeling paint and sometimes padlocked, ranging from the splintered and austere to the abundantly adorned, recalled many such thresholds in the artist’s cinema. (In the film that made his international reputation, Where Is the Friend’s Home? [1987], a little boy, desperate to return a notebook inadvertently taken from his classmate, learns about the craft of door-making from an old master who attempts to guide him to the eponymous house.) A literalist might have found in the labyrinth of barred and keyless entrances a metaphor for both the artisanal simplicity of Kiarostami’s early work and the recalcitrant enigmas of his later films, such as the protagonist’s reasons for wanting to commit suicide in Taste of Cherry (1997) or the exact nature of the engineer’s mission in a remote Kurdish village in The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). Alas, the decision to accoutre the installation with a soundscape of creaking doors, birdsong, and distant habitation, and a lounging area that suggested shisha-in-a-souk orientalism, undercut Kiarostami’s desired ambiguities.

A locked door offers little protection at the end of Kiarostami’s final feature, Like Someone in Love, whose profusion of windows appears to dematerialize its setting into mere reflection, Tokyo’s neon-lit nights and Yokohama’s radiant days mirrored in the glass that perpetually encases its characters, in a bar in the opening sequence, in a car for much of the rest of the film. (Jacques Tati similarly turned Paris into a mirage of nested reflections in Playtime [1967], but to an entirely different end.) Halfway through Someone, the reflections suddenly turn vertiginous, the camera fixed on a windshield in which a wavy diagonal bifurcates the image between two characters, one in sharp focus, the other in shallow. The unstable image abruptly wheels to reveal a cloud-scattered sky, and the camera remains outside the moving vehicle, peering through the windshield and side windows for much of the next four minutes, as power lines, firmament, and buildings slip abstractly over the glass. The sense of apparition underscores the film’s theme of deception. “I’m not lying to you”: Someone’s opening line is the first of many untruths and dissimulations in which Kiarostami’s characters—Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a university student who pays her way as a call girl; her violent, possessive fiancé, Noriaki (Ryo Kase); and Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), an avuncular old sociology professor who hires the prostitute for an evening—mistake each others’ identities and misrepresent their own natures. “What do you see in him exactly?” the prof asks a cowering Akiko of her betrothed, and one can only imagine the insidious charm with which Noriaki must have disguised his true being to court her. (Tellingly, the seminude Akiko appears only in the dim reflection of the professor’s television screen when she attempts to get him into bed.)

Kiarostami long professed an admiration for Japanese culture—he dedicated his film Five (2003), a quintet of fixed long takes shot on the Caspian Sea, to Yasujiro Ozu—but the sole representative of that tradition in Someone (Chiyoji Yazaki’s fin-de-siècle painting of a woman and a parrot, which hangs in the professor’s apartment) turns out to be a signifier of Western influence on the country’s art. The director was always attuned to matters of cultural nationalism, having once promised never to make a film outside his home country. In a career making narratives the subjects of which seemed to follow a diagrammatic progression from childhood to adolescence, maturity to mortality, Kiarostami remained in Iran after the Islamic Revolution to establish a film unit for the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children & Young Adults (aka Kanoon). In his early neorealist phase, the director restricted himself mostly to the world of youths in such films as The Traveler (1974), about a soccer-crazed delinquent who journeys four hundred miles to see a match in Tehran only to sleep through it, and The Wedding Suit (1976), in which a tailor’s apprentice and his two teenage friends covet an expensive outfit. (In one of his two final films, a sixteen-minute black-and-white video called Take Me Home [2016], Kiarostami returns to childhood and soccer, his camera following a little Italian boy’s football down several flights of stone stairs, much as it once fixed on an apple rolling through the village in The Wind Will Carry Us or on an aerosol canister rattling down a hill in Close-Up [1990].)

Abbas Kiarostami, Close-Up, 1990, 16 mm and 35 mm, color, sound, 98 minutes.

Close-Up singly established a genre that one might call “Persian meta,” with its startling shuttles between fiction and documentary. (2015’s Taxi, by Kiarostami’s erstwhile protégé, Jafar Panahi, is just the latest example of this approach.) The film re-creates a true story Kiarostami read in a magazine, about a young cinephilic imposter who was charged with impersonation after posing as one of Iran’s other leading directors, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In Close-Up’s hall-of-mirrors feints and chutes-and-ladders reversals, the actual Makhmalbaf finally arrives to meet his imitator. The so-called Koker trilogy (though the director rejected the designation), consisting of Where Is the Friend’s Home?, Life and Nothing More . . . (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994) and set in the earthquake-ravaged northern village that lends it its name, and the free-form video coda of Taste of Cherry extended this imbrication of actuality and fiction, by featuring, for example, nonprofessional actors in roles identical to their real-life characters. In Someone, Kiarostami varied his neorealist approach to choosing actors for their authenticity and comportment, selecting Tadashi Okuno, who had only ever been a nonspeaking extra, to play the professor, after rejecting virtually every famous older Japanese actor, many of them from the theater, for being artificial.

Kiarostami increasingly tested the limits of what was acceptable in a culture policed by censorious mullahs, sympathetically portraying a chic Tehran divorcée and, more daringly, a prostitute, in Ten (2002), and a man searching for someone to bury him after he commits suicide in A Taste of Cherry (which may have been influenced by Bresson’s dire The Devil, Probably [1977]); and he bravely inverted the traditional cosmology of earth and heaven—ascent now associated with duplicity and death, descent with authenticity and life—in the transporting allegory of The Wind Will Carry Us. Chafing at local constraints, Kiarostami finally contravened his own patriotic edict and headed into foreign territory—in every sense of that phrase—traveling to Italy and Japan to make international coproductions. Shot largely in English, the impossibly arch Certified Copy (2010) has an impeccable modernist pedigree, drawing on Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1954) and Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), with a trope or two from Antonioni in its game-playing tale about a Tuscan antiques dealer who may or may not be married to a visiting art historian. Contradicting many of the tenets of Kiarostami’s previous cinema, Certified Copy benefited from a multimillion-dollar budget, a large crew, and a major “bankable” star, Juliette Binoche, who had already made a brief appearance in a Kiarostami film, as one of the 114 women accorded an intense close-up in his 2008 experimental feature Shirin.

Shirin’s extraordinary use of offscreen space—the film consists solely of reaction shots of women in a movie theater; we never see the film they are so intently watching—signaled Kiarostami’s increasingly formalist approach, which reached a kind of culmination in his final two features. In the opening sequences of Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love—both of which are variations on the director’s trademark genre, the road movie—offscreen sound radically challenges us to puzzle out relationships: spatial, sonic, familial, amorous. Kiarostami’s uncanny camera placement in Someone initially makes it impossible to ascertain who is speaking, and what appears to be Akiko’s POV shot turns out to be a disorienting ruse. One thinks of the director’s advice to students shortly before his death: “[There are many spatial dimensions] but when we watch a film, we’re only seeing one of these dimensions: what’s right in front of us. Offscreen sound reminds us of these other dimensions that we may not be able to bring up on screen. . . . Offscreen sound is witness to the fact that, when we close our eyes, the world still goes on.” (The final phrase accidentally invokes the alternative English title for Life and Nothing More . . . , which was released in some countries as And Life Goes On—the phrase an optimistic credo for his affirmative cinema.) That we first hear Akiko—on her cell phone, imploring her suspicious fiancé to believe her—before we finally glimpse her evokes the many unseen speakers in The Wind Will Carry Us. Kiarostami repeats the ploy late in the film, when the professor’s prying neighbor remains outside the frame, introduced only by her ghostly speech. In this film of panes and casements, Kiarostami accords the neighbor a POV shot through the scrim of her curtains as she spies on Akiko and the prof. “I spend my time looking out this window. It’s my only distraction,” she says, and when the camera finally pulls back to reveal the tiny window framed by a rectangular opening in a brick wall, it becomes another of the director’s meta-cinematic details: The aperture attains the shape of a movie screen.

The mise-en-scène of Like Someone in Love proved less a departure than an intensification for Kiarostami. Even such early works as Orderly and Disorderly (1981) and Fellow Citizen (1983) revealed a structuralist rigor in their gridlike repetitions, and in The Traveler, Kiarostami had already initiated a mild form of meta in a montage of photographs the young protagonist fakes to swindle his schoolmates out of their money. Freed by digital filmmaking—Kiarostami later said he found shooting in 35 mm “unfriendly” and stressful—the director progressively experimented with protracted takes and locked shots. (At the time of his death, he was completing 24 Frames, consisting of two dozen four-and-a-half-minute plans séquences about canonical paintings and photographs.) Like Éric Rohmer, with whom the Iranian had many surprising affinities, including an almost mystical belief in realism and its inherence in objects present on set but invisible to the camera, in the use of a minimal crew when possible, and in the incorporation of chance encounters and accidents during filming, Kiarostami found pleasure in attenuations, temps morts, and the inconsequential. “I like those seemingly unimportant shots more than the important ones,” Kiarostami had recently told a class at Indiana University, and some of the loveliest in his last feature accord precious time to the professor succumbing to a nap at the wheel of his car and to a taxi circling a train station twice as Akiko strains to see her waiting grandmother.

Violence, largely abjured (again as in Rohmer) by the gentle Kiarostami, who relegated gunplay and bloodshed to his script for Panahi’s Crimson Gold (2003), finally arrives in his cinema in the seething figure of Noriaki. Half an hour before film’s end, Kiarostami places the pathologically controlling fiancé amid a fractured image whose jagged planes and frenzied trajectories, supplied by an open car hood and various windows and mirrors, denote Noriaki’s aggressiveness. “Open the door!” he commands when he finally tracks Akiko down to the professor’s apartment after assaulting her, but the locked entry offers no sanctuary; forced to the street, Noriaki shatters a window with deadly force. Taste of Cherry’s seemingly inexorable voyage toward suicide, on the other hand, ends with an act of absolution: Louis Armstrong playing “St. James Infirmary Blues” on the sound track. In the terminal moments of Kiarostami’s final narrative film, which long carried the working title The End, the brutal invasion segues to Ella Fitzgerald’s silky rendition of the film’s title song, whose lyric, “Sometimes the things I do astound me,” bequeaths both an envoi to the film and an unintentional summary of the director’s career.

Life indeed goes on without Kiarostami, but lamentably diminished.

James Quandt, Senior Programmer at Tiff Cinematheque in Toronto, organized last year’s retrospective “The Wind Will Carry Us: The Films of Abbas Kiarostami” at Tiff Bell Lightbox.

Read Miriam Rosen’s interview with Abbas Kiarostami (April 1998).