Director: Abbas Kiarostami
‘I always wonder to what extent the artist aims to depict the reality of a scene. Painters capture only one frame of reality and nothing before or after it. For “24 Frames” I started with famous paintings but then switched to photos I had taken through the years. I included about four and a half minutes of what I imagined might have taken place before or after each image I had captured.’
The above appears simply in white text on black at the beginning of 24 Frames; the last film from Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. With sequencing finished after his death in July 2016 by his son Ahmad Kiarostami, it depicts 24 of these vignettes, occasionally with musical accompaniment (but more often without), and represents the final masterpiece of one of world cinema’s true legends. It is a piece that exists between mediums. It would sit appropriately in a gallery as an art installation. It would look miraculous in a cinema. And, thanks to the Criterion Collection, it has been released on a beautiful Blu-Ray here in the UK for home viewing.
24 Frames does indeed begin with a famous painting. Pieter Brueghel’s 16th century work Hunters In The Snow fades in and Kiarostami’s minimalist approach to bringing these pieces to life becomes clear. Through digital manipulation and compositing, Kiarostami animates a snowfall and the chimneys start smoking. In the distance animals cross. In the foreground a dog sniffs. Ambient sounds encourage a sense of place, of environment. Four minutes later, it fades to black and an intertitle introduces the next frame.
The remaining 23 are all photos of Kiarostami’s. The natural world takes precedent, and for the first hour, the presence of humanity in the world is only occasionally inferred. Only once does he engineer movement of the camera itself; recreating the moment his car slows to a stop and the window rolls down so that he can capture two horses investigating one another in the snow. This itself seems curiously fitting considering a career that seemed so frequently to be preoccupied with travelling in cars.
As the series unfurls certain motifs recur. Snow. Birds. Coastlines. Trees in silhouette. In keeping with Kiarostami’s late-career strive for minimalism, some of these vignettes evidence the absence of action. They depict stillness. But even to this end one might argue that some of them could be even more pared down. His predilection for adding birds, for instance, verges on self-parody by the twelfth or thirteenth instance…
24 Frames may sound like the absence of drama – perhaps even seen narrowly as anticinema – but many of these framed images contain their own narratives. Frame 4, the first to be punctuated by unseen human interference, sees elk cross a snowy landscape after a hunter’s shot rings out. Tension presses into the scene as one elk – a lone dissenter – appears unphased by the danger and even moves back toward it. Will Kiarostami imagine the animal caught by a second shot? The question, left open, receives a sharp reply in Frame 5, in which a peaceful scene of a deer is clapped by another rifle shot and the deer falls down dead. Even here, the gun on the wall theorem in action. Elsewhere, two birds hopping along a seawall during stormy weather becomes improbably suspenseful.
Other frames talk to one another. Frame 14 is shot from within a dilapidated interior; an opening to the outside world sliced diagonally by a crossbeam. Through this gap we peer and, just as Kiarostami fades to black, a pickup truck pulls up. It’s one of the most overt moments of human activity thus far. It pre-empts the scene that follows. Frame 15 shows several people observing the Eiffel Tower and, with more pronounced activity than anywhere else in the series, a woman with a guitar crosses frame, singing to passers-by.
Frame 15 is generally the exception to the rule, though. In spite of the recurrent absence of society (could 24 Frames be viewed as post-apocalyptic?) Kiarostami’s film is deeply imbued with human feeling. These are lonesome moments, introverted and incredibly intimate. One imagines, while watching, Kiarostami composing the photos, stealing time away from bustle or people to exist as a viewer with his subject. There is a relationship going on here constantly. Kiarostami’s images don’t favour other people. One gets a sense of envy for nature and space and stillness. His additions – birds and snowfall most frequently – only emphasise the dimensions of his negative spaces. Emptiness to exist in.
There is also humour here. Frame 22 finds a dog barking ridiculously at a makeshift flag in the middle of a beach, while Frame 12 depicts a bird’s silhouette against a window blind; its plump shape is comical against the thin lines of the bars on which it evidently perches. It’s an impertinent blob in the rigid structure. Then Kiarostami performs subtle magic, making it appear and disappear with manipulated light levels.
The hybrid nature of the piece seems like a fitting close to a career that crossed platforms and played restlessly with form. This is art cinema at its most pared back but also most stirring, functioning on a completely different wavelength from the glut of traditionally narrative entertainment that clutters our streaming services. Don’t watch it as a film in any reductive, conventional sense. Approach it as you would a gallery piece. You’re allowed to be bored by it (not all frames generated a response from me), you’re even allowed to fall asleep to it. How you receive it is entirely in your court. But the work itself is peerless.
David Lynch has talked about how he got into film through wanting his paintings to move, and his early shorts evidence this. Kiarostami’s career, meanwhile, has ended with this desire achieved to its fullest.