“Like Someone in Love” is the latest small, perplexing masterpiece from the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who in recent years has chosen the path of a world director. While still based in Iran (where his colleague, Jafar Panahi, makes films illegally and is forbidden to travel abroad), Kiarostami ventured to Tuscany with Juliette Binoche for the Pirandellian romance “Certified Copy” (2010) and has now landed in Tokyo with a Japanese cast and script. It turns out that his concerns and talents — his gift for tangled human poetry — are stateless.
The new film is slender, and it plays obliquely with the style of the 20th-century Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu: simple shots of simple people revealing universal truths. But there is more going on in “Like Someone in Love” than it seems initially. A pretty, stressed-out college student named Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is revealed to be moonlighting as a call girl. Her latest client is a retired sociology professor, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), who may want a dinner companion to ward off loneliness, or who may want more. The meaning is in the gaps the director leaves for us to fill.
If Ozu filmed in living rooms and kitchens, Kiarostami shoots many of his conversations in cars, in keeping with previous films like “Taste of Cherry” (1997) and the transience of modern society. A long nighttime sequence of Akiko traveling by taxi to meet Takashi — circling Tokyo Station to try to spot the grandmother she’s avoiding — conveys a beautiful, neon-lit weariness. The characters always seem on the way to who they are, and they never seem to arrive.
With the appearance of Akiko’s jealous fiance, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), the drama adds further layers. A blue-collar garage mechanic, he’s both ardent and possessive — he knows she’s hiding something and it’s driving him nuts. Meeting Takashi when the older man drops Akiko off at class, Noriaki assumes he’s her grandfather and asks for permission to marry; Takashi tries to impart the wisdom of age while walking a tightrope of imposture.
Yet something doesn’t square. The key word in the film’s title is “like,” because each of the characters is pursuing an illusion that only looks like love. Noriaki, a traditionalist, has put Akiko on a virgin’s pedestal and thinks he can control the dissonance by marrying her. For Akiko, love is sex and sex is cash and the equation is just wearing her out.
Even the cuddly old Takashi has darker shadings the closer we look. Did he order up Akiko himself, or was she a “gift” from her boss, a former student? Did anything happen after she crawled into the old man’s bed and fell asleep? In a casual but crucial scene late in the film, Akiko talks with Takashi’s neighbor as the older woman peers out her window and confesses the crush she always had on him — another illusion. But we also learn the professor is estranged from his daughter and granddaughter; that there’s a nameless tragedy there. So who is Akiko to him, really?
“Like Someone in Love” is a quiet, contemplative film that nags at you after the lights come up and that deepens and darkens in the memory. We’re all standing at the windows of our selves, Kiarostami hints, glimpsing what we can and misjudging the rest. Fittingly, the film ends with the window irrevocably shattered.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .