Whatever else we can say about it, 24 Frames sure as hell is different. The final film by the late master director Abbas Kiarostami (it premiered a little under a year after his death) would already have my affection just for being such a swerve, albeit a totally in-character swerve. After briefly leaving Iran to make 2010's Certified Copy and 2012's Like Someone in Love, Kiarostami was mostly silent for the last few years of his life, but it's clear enough from his final works that he was continuing to gnaw at the great unifying theme of his career: so what, anyway, is the "cinematic image"? How do filmmakers generate narrative meaning and how do film viewers unpack that meaning?

I guess Kiaromstami's definitive experiments in that arena were always and will ever remain 1989's unclassifiable docu-biopic thing Close-Up, and the profoundly de-centering final scene of the 1997 feature Taste of Cherry. But his two posthumous films both move into that area with an astounding fearlessness, especially for a septuagenarian. His 2016 short, Take Me Home (which premiered a month after his death) is a plotless, wordless, even motionless exercise: other than its first and last shot, every image is a static framing (it would not surprise me at all to learn that they are still photographs) of stairs, indoors and out, in high-contrast black and white. with a CGI ball rolling and bouncing its way down, down without fail, creating a flagrantly unreal montage of perpetual descent. It exists in an impossible space and creates plot out of nothing twice over (the ball is not a human and it also didn't exist in front of the camera).

24 Frames is both companion piece and direct opposite of that: instead of Take Me Home using a moving medium to create stillness, 24 Frames uses still media to create movement. And also all the movement we see is synthetic in origin - not, that I can tell, actual CGI, but it's all been digitally composited together, and not with any particular interest in crafting an illusion of reality.

The 24 frames in question are 23 still photographs taken by Kiarostami in one of his other artistic careers, and the 1565 painting The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. As an opening title card written in the first person helpfully explains, Kiarostami found himself looking at these 24 images, slicing the flow of time into one instant, and wondering what might have happened before and after that single moment. 24 Frames is an attempt to answer that: it consists of 24 long takes, each lasting four and a half minutes, that show the image in question moving. For The Hunters in the Snow, this means animated snow falling, and dogs and birds being digitally composited; the other 23 sequences are each more conventionally filmed, recreating Kiarostami's photographs rather than animating a still image.

For a little while, it seems like that's all 24 Frames is going to be, and even when that was the end of it, I was having a pretty good time. There's something wonderful about any great director's final film being so offbeat and unusual while still pulling in just enough that it still feels like a coherent part of their career, and the film is certainly that. Not to mention that the shots are all tremendously beautiful, often using high-contrast black-and-white digital cinematography to capture all of the textural nuances of Kiarostami's subjects, which tend towards natural landscapes: trees in snow, waves crashing on a beach. It's peculiar but enjoyable.

Kiarostami being one of the greatest filmmakers of the last half-century, it of course turns out to be much more than just pretty images moving through dreamily unrealistic collages. I couldn't say exactly when it struck me that the film isn't at all a random collection of compositions, but that there is a strict, not very large list of variables being combined, never in the same arrangement. The settings are snow fields with trees, the beach, or inside a house looking through a window; every shot has one kind of animal, either dogs, cows, or a corvid species I wouldn't care to specifically identify, or some other kind of bird; sometimes snow is falling; there is either natural ambient sound of wind or water, or a recording of a piece of music sung by an operatically-trained woman. I think only three shots fall mostly outside of these parameters, and they are all paced out very specifically

I hate myself that I didn't take notes on what elements were combined, and in what order, because 24 Frames clearly has a structure, one that has been very carefully and maybe even mathematically worked out. You can feel it develop, even if I don't have what I need to work out what the development is.

Still, even without having an answer key, what 24 Frames is up to is astonishing. Just at the level of pure sensation, the combination of beautiful imagery (and every single one of the 24 frames is the most damnably beautiful thing), relaxing soundscapes, and animal behavior is wonderful to watch, and the film has many levels to go below that one. There is the way that several of the frames end up containing a pretty clear narrative, which encourages us to watch the other ones to see if some story is implicit in what appears to be 4.5 repetitive minutes of trees swaying (in one case, near the end, the implicit narrative about those trees suddenly becomes so explicit that it left me with the same feeling of shock and terror that I'd expect to get from a really good horror movie). Coupled with the opening card, the film ends up being about the very act of story-creating on the part of the viewer; I cannot tell if Kiarostami is gently making fun of our species-wide tendency to write narratives into natural processes, celebrating it, or most likely both.

And then take another step down, and the film is about how we would even go about that form of active viewership: how do we watch some things and hear some things, and understand how to construct a unified whole from the points where those things overlap (or don't)? This, I think, is where the film benefits from having such transparently bad compositing: there is clearly no "reality" that we're watching, but we effortlessly assemble one out of the bits and pieces of material we're being given. This exposure of the basic lie of cinema, the illusion that artists create and viewers agree to, that there is a thing that happened and that it is being shown to us through the documentary fact of the photograph, is the perfect final gesture for a man whose films have prodded at that lie in more and less direct ways for the length of a career.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't say: the thing can be real damn funny. There's a late scene with a dog that is the most delightfully doggish thing in a movie in forever; earlier than that, we've been treated to one of the most abrupt, unexpected, and therefore absurd sex scenes that I can think of having seen. The final frame is packed with random nonsense, but most of all a music cue that up-ends all of the very serious, artfully-selected pieces that have underscored several of the previous shots. It's silly on its own, but I wonder if there's more to it: if Kiarostami wanted to usher us out of the movie by reminding us that all this metacritical interrogation, all this reflecting on our process as viewers, all of this meaning-creation; you should still have fun with it. Well, fun I did have, and while I mourn the knowledge that there will be no more Kiarostami films, as any good cinephile must, I can't imagine a more invigorating, counter-intuitively perfect final gesture for this of all directors to leave us with.