Feb. 13, 2008 - Issue #643: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
Only the animation is black-and-white in Satrapi’s Persepolis
Josef Braun: Maybe it’s best to start is with the simplest question: What is Persepolis?
Brian Gibson: Right. Is it a sort of memoir? A political drama?
JB: Our perspective is that of adults watching it in the international niche market, but the movie is a cartoon, and quite a visually engaging one at that. While a lot of animated features seem obsessed with up-to-the-nanosecond technical virtuosity, this a work of controlled, spare, but very playful graphic charisma.
BG: It’s also a cartoon about history, about political events the author has had time to reflect on. I was really drawn in by certain aspects of the film, especially the distinctively somber mood.
JB: There definitely are sections, particularly the ones explicitly dealing with war, where this affecting, sombre mood prevails. But I wonder if the episodic nature of the narrative forces a kind of general wash of atmosphere and polemic.
BG: I kept comparing the film to the books, because I’ve read them several times and have even taught them to my first-year English students. The books aren’t as sombre—particularly when Marjane’s very little—but they are indeed very episodic. I imagine the filmmakers didn’t want to make the film too episodic because then it would feel choppy, so maybe one of the ways they could remedy that is by working with a more consistent tone, which wound up being a sad one.
JB: Interesting. I mean, we have the entire history of cinema to survey on the various ways in which to devise a literary adaptation, but when it comes to other source material, like graphic novels, filmmakers are still struggling with the expectations of the fans, with trying to cram everything that makes a series of comics compelling into a single movie.
BG: And comics have this visual similarity to celluloid strips, so maybe that also cripples one’s ability to think of adapting comic imagery into something truly new as a movie. Having said that, Persepolis has a lot of beautiful animated sequences that could only come to life in movement.
JB: I was taken with the transitions especially, as well as the stark brutality of the scenes of violence or its aftereffects.
BG: Like where Marjane sees the dead hand with the bracelet belonging to her neighbour, these moments where things become still and we hone in on something small and awful.
JB: But the film also balances bold realism with more fanciful episodes that you certainly could never have done in a live-action film.
BG: Like when she’s suffering through puberty and imagines her body parts growing at wildly different rates. I can’t imagine that coming off in a live-action film. Except maybe in one directed by Michel Gondry.
JB: What did you make of Marjane’s conversations with God and Marx, or her fantasy date with the Viennese beau?
BG: Those are great, that sequence where she comes to hate her boyfriend and he transforms into this slobbering, vomiting, gap-toothed guy. And the scenes with God and Marx are dealt with almost more smoothly than in the books.
JB: It’s funny how a film can be so austere in many ways and yet boast a sequence in which the heroine sings “Eye of the Tiger” in broken English.
BG: Yeah, this portrait of an Iranian girl singing this defiant Western pop song is one of many moments where we see her trying on all these different identities as a way to figure herself out.
JB: I like that it reverses the common critical perspective here: is this a case of Western culture colonizing the world, or is it in fact a case of a young person in a distant culture appropriating some aspect of Western culture? Persepolis kind of turns certain liberal preconceptions on their heads this way. Rather than having Western culture shoved down her throat, Marjane actually has to go out of her way to find it.
BG: And while it’s funny, there’s a lot of sincerity in they way we see Marjane go looking for black market Michael Jackson and Maiden tapes. Yet considering the role of the West, I did wish the film could have dealt with how the West supplied arms to Iraq during the war, not to mention all the ways in which the West interfered with Iranian politics going back to the ’50s. It’s a bit too easy to focus so much on Iran’s repressive culture rather than recognize our own complicity.
JB: But a lot of work that comes out of Iran varies according to gender. I think most female artists rightfully have more to say about the repression of women.
BG: That’s true. And the way Persepolis conveys the adult Marjane’s story of trying to place herself in a more conventional Iranian marriage is one of the strongest things in the film.
JB: And, again, how interesting that we’re getting this sort of theme out of something as accessible as a cartoon.
BG: Exactly. I wonder if this isn’t something we might be seeing more of. We’ve had this incredible wave of films giving us Iran from an insider’s point of view—maybe now it’s time for the exile’s. V
Opens Fri, Feb 15
Written and directed by Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud
Featuring the voices of Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni
Got something to say? Send a letter to the editor.
New comments for this entry have been turned off and any existing ones are hidden. We apologize for any inconvenience.