24 Frames

Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who died in 2016 at age 76, often employed tricky or complicated methods to arrive at results that appeared simple. For most of the conversations in Taste of Cherry (1997), he interviewed the participants separately, then edited their responses together to create the illusion of free-flowing dialogue. For his experimental feature Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), he digitally composited multiple shots to create the illusion of individual, unbroken takes. 24 Frames (2017), his final (and posthumously completed) work, comprises a series of four-and-a-half-minute sequences in which paintings and photographs appear to come to life; the director achieved this effect by digitally inserting moving figures into still images. As in Five, it often seems as though nothing is happening—humans rarely enter into the images, which center on animals, weather, and natural landscapes. You wonder if Kiarostami simply set up his camera in various locations and hit “record.”

Yet from these seemingly primitive scenes, Kiarostami creates an absorbing, Zen-like experience open to multiple forms of interpretation. You can appreciate 24 Frames as a metacinematic puzzle, as a celebration of nature, and as a trance-inducing meditation. (I found myself alternating between all three approaches, depending on where my mood took me.) Kiarostami transforms the cinematic environment into a contemplative zone in which you feel calm and focused; you can go with the flow of sounds and images, ponder their meaning, or reflect on the cinematic trickery the director used in assembling them. Comparable to Brian Eno’s ambient records, 24 Frames invites both cursory and deep readings; regardless of how you interact with it, the film provides immense aesthetic pleasure.

To create this illusion of unmediated reality, Kiarostami employed a 12-person special effects team and more than half a dozen animal wranglers. Looking at the first sequence, an animation of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Hunters in the Snow (1565), you can see how the original image has been changed—the live-action dogs, birds, and cows that move through the painting look distinctly different from their painted counterparts. Yet as 24 Frames proceeds, you may be less sure what Kiarostami has manipulated or left alone. The second sequence shows horses against a snowy landscape, but you can’t be certain whether the landscape is part of the source photograph or the animation. Also, to what extent was the horses’ seemingly natural behavior directed by one of Kiarostami’s animal wranglers?

That same sequence contains the only camera movement in 24 Frames. From behind a car window, you can see a car drive up to a spot about 100 yards from the horses, then park so the unidentified driver can observe their play. One might think of the driver as a stand-in for Kiarostami, who “disrupts” the photograph much as the driver disrupts the natural setting. At times 24 Frames feels like an autobiographical statement about an artist’s impact on the world he inhabits—he wants to observe the world as it is, but he can’t resist intervening. (The movie feels like a minimalist variation on Kiarostami’s 1999 masterpiece The Wind Will Carry Us, about an urban filmmaker’s misadventures in a rural town he wants to document.)

The personal nature of 24 Frames is most apparent in the 15th sequence. A photograph shows six people from behind, standing on a balcony in Paris and looking out at the Eiffel Tower. The three women wear head scarves, and all six people seem to be from somewhere other than France. When moving figures enter into the frame, they don’t interact with—or even seem to notice—the group of six, who remain eerily motionless. The sequence provides a poignant metaphor for the immigrant experience, especially when you remember that Kiarostami spent most of his later years in France and died in Paris.

In other sequences, the director suggests human interaction even when people aren’t onscreen, filming natural settings through windows and from behind balconies. A master of visual metaphor, Kiarostami uses architecture to convey humans’ inherent separation from nature as well as the irreversible impact of people on the planet. For the 21st sequence, animated from a photograph of a window, Kiarostami conjures up a drama offscreen with the sounds of footsteps, keys jingling, and other mundane noises; a jarring sound suggests either an accident or an act of violence. Another sequence is less ambiguous, an offscreen gunshot resulting in the onscreen death of a bird.

In fact death is the principal theme of 24 Frames. The movie contains two animal fatalities, and many of the sequences take place in winter. The penultimate sequence is one of the most eloquent intimations of death I’ve seen in a movie. Kiarostami presents two trees swaying in a breeze, shot from a low angle behind a pile of freshly cut logs. Gradually the sound of a chainsaw grows audible, and we all know how trees become logs. This emphasis on death throws into relief Kiarostami’s twin focus on life, just as the still photographs and paintings heighten any onscreen movement. The chief pleasure of 24 Frames is how it attunes you to appreciate any movement, whether it’s snow falling, waves crashing, or birds pecking the earth.

Presence and absence, stillness and movement, being and nothingness—these are big themes for a movie in which supposedly nothing happens. Kiarostami knew how to make complicated filmmaking seem easy, but his greatness lay in his ability to find the complex within the simple.  v