Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Movie Review: Persepolis

The new Persepolis movie (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s adaptation of Satrapi’s popular comic book) begins with a grown Marjane staring at the departures board in a French airport. She’s looking at a listing for a flight to Tehran. It’s a color scene in a black-and-white cartoon, but you don’t feel like it’s because Marjane is finally alive on the inside or in Oz or anything like that. Marjane looks dismal. She goes through the motions of boarding the flight, but stops short of doing so.

It’s made difficult for certain peoples to see themselves in the representations of other certain peoples. Satrapi’s simple, colorless drawings present an opportunity for overcoming this disability.

The story is told through several long flashbacks, the first of which has Marjane, in late 70s Iran, as a cute, round-faced and extremely self-assured child intoxicated by the glamour of political turmoil. Her parents (Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian) are progressives who worry about their friends and family members being held as political prisoners.

Dealing with an audience who will know at least a little about what will happen, Satrapi and Paronnaud still manage to make the family’s hopeful anticipation of a post-Shah Iran feel immediate and gripping. When the Islamic revolution changes their way of life, the adults in Marjane’s life, vignetted in charcoal, rationalize the situation directly to the camera– half the country is illiterate, religion and nationalism are the only ways the people can come together, things will improve. But Persepolis depicts life in Iran as increasingly repressive and rife with public dishonesty. The movie is very funny, and much of the humor comes at the expense of the most iconic results of the Islamic revolution. Iran sent Cannes a peeved note for showing the film this year, and had it pulled out of Thailand recently.

The social model for women in post-revolution society intrudes on Marjane’s coming-of-age, which is a whole big piece of this story, and the filmmakers are funny and unflinching in telling it. The black head covering and chador – new and bothersome to Marjane’s cosmopolitan family – are used to great effect in scenes at school (a crowd of teenage girls, their differences wiped away), on the street (two old harpies shift and bend around Marjane, offended by her homemade Punk is Ded jacket and Michael Jackson button (“western decadence!” ))

As Marjane grows up, she becomes incompatible with her country. Her grandma (Danielle Darrieux) bolsters her fierce independence, and acts as an external conscience. That sounds maudlin and predictable, but this grandmother isn’t your sweet and dim movie stereotype. When Marjane has a man arrested to distract Revolutionary Guard officers from noticing that she is wearing makeup, her grandma berates her like nobody’s business. And Grandma makes references to the “small dicks!” of various men, a determined and strident reversal of objectification. And when Marjane pretends to be French at a school party in Vienna, Grandma appears as a shadow stalking her home.

The film is beautiful to look at. It employs some familiar old-school cinematic tools – magic-lantern-type animations, silhouetted and expressionistic renderings of ruination and fear that reminded me, in flashes, of a wide range of black-and-white directors, like Murnau and de Sica. Olivier Bernet’s score is wonderful (and it doesn’t feel fake “Middle Eastern” like you’d hear in a Hollywood movie), and it’s super important in Persepolis, which tends toward an almost episodic structure, at times ending sequences with an iris out to black.

Persepolis doesn’t neglect to tell the story of Western tampering with Iranian affairs, and it doesn’t gloss over European xenophobia. Marjane seems like a misfit everywhere on Earth, and she directs her anger outward, at the Khomeinians who have her people in a headlock, at a cheating boyfriend, at bourgeois Europeans. Only during a trippy, drawn-out sequence in which she takes anti-depressants (she ends up in the clouds with god and who I assume is Marx), do we get the sense that she ever struggles with her reaction to her situation. She has not a moment of self-doubt.

Each main character rejects the Islamic revolution totally and completely, which left me wondering about those who would have their private resistance eaten away by time. I was curious about what is was like for Marjane’s parents to optimistically consider something like the Islamic revolution as a brief downtick in the national soul, only to see its grip on your culture tighten. In one of the movie’s last moments, Marjane is in an Iranian airport with her family. Her parents’ black and white oval faces take on the familiar expressions your parents usually have when you’re about to board a plane without them, but she’s never coming back.


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