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It's not a mainstream film, but Like Someone in Love tells us no more about the realities of prostitution than Pretty Woman

Like Someone in Love by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami uses prostitution as a means to pursue its own ends: an analysis of identity and everyday role playing, without the slightest hint of smut.

Like Someone in Love (12A)
dir: Abbas Kiarostami

The lesson that audiences took away from the hit romantic comedy Pretty Woman was that prostitution was a viable way for a young woman to meet Richard Gere or his nearest available equivalent. All that soulless intimacy and the absence of most of the perks associated with more conventional jobs (health insurance or the use of a crèche) would be compensated for once a millionaire pitched up at the kerbside, offering a life of affluence and absolutely no beatings or crack cocaine.

It’s easy, not to mention enjoyable, to sneer at the Hollywood version of the oldest profession but prostitution isn’t handled with any greater depth in Like Someone in Love, which is as far from mainstream cinema as Gere is from humility.

This is the elliptical new film from the Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami, working here in Tokyo with a Japanese cast and French and Japanese funding. Art cinema has always entertained a fascination with the prostitute, bewitched perhaps by her (and it’s usually a “her”) aspiration to separate desire and economics definitively; it’s the sort of emotional schism well-suited to a storytelling model specialising in the psychological. It would be naive to pretend that the potential for nudity doesn’t help or that the overlap has not been considerable between art-house audiences and what was once known as the “dirty mac brigade”. (I’m not sure what we call them now that dirty mackintosh manufacturing has joined the seemingly endless list of industries killed off by the internet.)

Like Someone in Love is chaste but it uses prostitution conveniently for its own ends – in this case, not romantic idealism but an analysis of everyday role playing. Any nastiness is blotted out; the film is tasteful to a fault. Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is a student coerced into moonlighting as an escort. Her boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), is oblivious, while the grandmother she was supposed to meet at the station has been left to fend for herself. It could be worse. The evening’s work for Akiko consists only of being driven to the apartment of an elderly writer, Wata - nabe (Tadashi Okuno), who engages her in conversation and serves her dinner. Talk about kinky.

The meat of the film lies not in this encounter but in the misunderstandings that arise from it. Kiarostami gives us fair warning that identity will be a slippery business when he opens the picture with a shot of several sets of customers in a bar. Common sense tells us that the conversation we can hear is not attributable to any of the people on-screen but that doesn’t stop the brain from trying to match sound to image.

This dislocation effect resurfaces occasionally during the movie. Miscommunication is rife. Granny leaves a string of phone messages that Akiko doesn’t retrieve until it is too late. Noriaki is so aware of the potential for deceit in a phone call that he sets Akiko challenges to ascertain her whereabouts. When Akiko reaches Watanabe’s apartment, the old man’s telephone seems to ring endlessly. Mobile phones were always interrupting tranquillity in Kiarostami’s 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us and their bothersome presence in the new picture suggests that the director hasn’t yet found that elusive ideal network.

Examples of mistaken identity are rarely more extreme than the one that occurs in the second half of Like Someone in Love, in which Noriaki ends up asking Watanabe for permission to marry Akiko, having assumed that he is her grandfather. The same error is made by one of Watanabe’s neighbours. But a fatal air of smugness hangs over these scenes, as it sometimes can when an audience is so many steps ahead of the action.

This is in direct contrast to Kiarostami’s last film, Certified Copy, in which two apparent strangers turned out, as the story progressed, to have been married, possibly for many years. Even when that picture was over, the mystery surrounding the exact nature of their relationship remained unsolved.

Certified Copy was rather solemn but at least it erred on the side of the enigmatic. Like Someone in Love, on the other hand, is like a puzzle that takes an eternity to complete and yet still somehow contains too few pieces to be taxing.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland