PRINT September 2017



Abbas Kiarostami, 24 Frames, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 114 minutes.

THE TITLE of Abbas Kiarostami’s posthumous film, 24 Frames (2016), both announces the nature of the work—consisting of two dozen shots, all but one statically filmed with a fixed camera—and deviously invokes Jean-Luc Godard’s famous pronouncement, “Cinema is truth at twenty-four frames a second.” Godard’s formulation, like so much imagery that will soon prove obsolete in relation to movies, referred to celluloid; Kiarostami in fact abandoned that medium long ago for digital filmmaking, in which separate frames do not actually exist. Never mind that the increasingly postmodernist Kiarostami seemed to assert in his final feature, with its many manipulations of the image, that any faith in filmic “truth” may be misplaced.

The film’s formalist structure looks back to Kiaro-stami’s tribute to Yasujiro Ozu, Five (2003), a quintet of locked long takes filmed on the Caspian Sea; 24 Frames plays off its rigid sequencing—each shot is numbered, lasts approximately four-and-a-half minutes, and ends with a fade to black, usually triggered by an animal’s exit from the frame—against the (supposed) spontaneity of its events, most of them involving beasts whose behavior is augmented by crude CGI. A thunderclap frightens off a lion servicing his sexually aroused queen, who rolls onto her back, contemptuous of his interruptus-by-lightning; a seagull mourns its mate; two horses perform an amorous dance in the midst of a snowstorm; a conga line of ducks cavort on a shore. It’s like an episode of Planet Earth shot by James Benning.

The opening frame reveals Kiarostami’s original intention: to examine canonical artworks. As he suggests in the film’s prologue: “For ‘24 Frames’ I started with famous paintings but then switched to photos I had taken through the years.” The camera initially surveys Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow, 1565, a painting that has inspired several directors, especially Andrei Tarkovsky, whose penchant for bare-branched trees Kiarostami indulges here. In the first of many instances of digital trickery, Kiarostami animates the tableau: Chimneys chuff; a dog pees on a tree; crows take flight. One of the few frames in which humans appear, the Bruegel serves as an imagistic repository for the remainder of the film, its snowy setting, hunting theme, and bestiary (especially black birds) repeatedly employed in the subsequent minidramas. (Again like Tarkovsky, the Iranian auteur inclined to the inclement; almost half the frames involve snow, while several others feature rain, wind, and impending storms.)

Just when the unvarying serialism of 24 Frames threatens to turn oppressive—most of the shots are in black-and-white and feature avian performers—Kiarostami pulls off a surprise: the Eggleston-like teal palette and picturesque desolation in Frame 16, for instance, or the trompe l’oeil ruse of the immediately preceding vignette, in which the remarkable intentness of a group of tourists studying the Eiffel Tower gradually reveals itself to be the effect of a photographic gambit. (Here, and again in Frame 19, Kiarostami organizes the image to emphasize its planarity, as if drifting toward 3-D.)

Assembled after Kiarostami’s untimely death, 24 Frames acts as an inadvertent summa, gathering some of its director’s favorite motifs: seascapes arranged as a Rothko triptych of sand, water, and sky; wind-gusted trees; snowbound fields; a series of barricades and balustrades. Just as Kiarostami’s ultimate art exhibition comprised photographs of closed doors, his final film features numerous multipaned casements and open windows, frames within frames. (The copulating lions are shot through an aperture in an African sand wall.) For the director, who previously deployed Domenico Cimarosa and Louis Armstrong, the music in his final film is relatively sparing, from a ululating clarinet in Frame 5 to Janet Baker singing Schubert’s “Ave Maria” in Frame 12. Kiarostami sometimes reserved jazz classics for his endings (e.g., Taste of Cherry [1997], Like Someone in Love [2012]), so the song that accompanies Frame 24, which one surmises contains the director’s last image, comes as a shock: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies.” In a nocturnal room whose window looks out on a blustery stand of trees, a figure dozes, head on desk, oblivious to a computer screen filled with the radiant final image of William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)—that of Teresa Wright bestowing her devotion and a new lease on life on Dana Andrews’s humiliated war hero—which dissolves into the end, the embedded text serving doubly to conclude both Best Years and 24 Frames. The finale’s surging affirmation of the transformative power of love—Webber’s kitsch, Wyler’s pathos—provides an ultra-Romantic and immensely moving valediction for Kiarostami’s career.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.