Persepolis (2007)

persepolis

Persepolis
Dir. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent ParronoudPremiered at Cannes May 23, 2007

I live in California, and here is a large community of Persians, Armenians, and Jews who fled the 1979 Iranian Revolution. They’ve been my neighbors, colleagues, and even one of my favorite comedians. But overall, my impression of the Revolution is informed almost entirely by those who got away.

While politics isn’t absent from Persepolis, it’s not really a political film. In the late 1970s, young Marjane Satrapi witnesses the downfall of the Shah of Iran. Inspired by the stories of her Communist uncle, she eagerly awaits a new era of freedom in her country. Instead, things get worse. The Islamic Republic is established, opposed to both eastern and western blocs. Political repression intensifies, and her uncle is executed. Friends and family die as the country enters eight years of brutal war with Iraq. Western products disappear off shelves and into the black market. And the establishment that once venerated the Shah now venerates the Ayatollah.

Too free-spirited to live in such a condition, Satrapi is sent by her parents to Europe, but she is treated like a stranger and does not enjoy the compassion she did in her home country. However, returning home is no easier. Though the war is over, the country seems to be in a state of permanent revolution, and she must decide whether to stay and try to make the best of the situation, and leave without the possibility of returning.

By eschewing an agenda, Persepolis manages to be far more enlightening and persuasive than any other depiction of this time and place I’ve seen so far. The animation is cute, but still delightfully expressionistic and able to convey a universe of emotions. What’s more, it neither demonizes nor venerates Satrapi’s choices; they are merely part of life, and there are often no good answers.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Nothing particular comes to mind, though Satrapi’s drawing style is very reminiscent of more recent animated fare. Perhaps there was some influence there.

Additional Notes

How Did It Do?
Persepolis grossed $22.8 million against a $7.3 million budget, and received a glowing 96% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. France chose the film as its submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film; it wasn’t nominated for that, but it did get a nomination for Best Animated Feature, the only traditionally-animated film to be so recognized.

I might be the only person who thinks the movie is somewhat overrated, but reading a lot of the reviews, a lot of the praise seems to be based in the film’s politics, or the novelty of using animation to depict and discuss serious topics like this. This novelty would be short-lived, to the point that traditional animation started to be seen as inherently artsy.

Persepolis has proven surprisingly controversial since its release. The Iranian government, fresh off their overserious condemnation of Zack Snyder’s 300, condemned the film as counterrevolutionary, prompting a heavily censored release in the country and short-lived ban in its ally Lebanon. That was to be expected. What was not expected was for the Iranian government to pressure the Bangkok Film Festival into dropping the film in June, for the head of a Tunisian TV channel that showed it to be arrested and convicted for broadcasting an anthropomorphic image of God (See? I wasn’t kidding!), or for a school district near Seattle to nearly ban the film and its source material for its frank depiction of female puberty, political violence, and profanity, one of many reminders at the time that my Catholic high school might as well have been Woodstock compared to most of its secular counterparts in the US.

Next Time: Ocean’s 13

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Madame Rosa (1977)

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Madame Rosa
La Vie Devant Soi
Dir. Moshe Mizrahi
Premiered November 2, 1977

Paris as we know it is not very old. Beginning in the 1860s, the city was demolished piece by piece and rebuilt bigger, cleaner, and easier to get around, this was the beginning of the wide avenues, circles, and monuments we know today. But it was never finished. Go to the Marais, just north of the Île Saint-Louis, and suddenly you are not only in a version of Paris that has disappeared, but an entire way of life in Europe. Preserved in this one corner of the continent is a perfect image of the Old Country; the close cobblestone streets, bars, bookstores, and bakeries of the Jewish ghetto; here alone lives the world of ancient photographs and tragicomic Yiddish tales of life before the Holocaust. Madame Rosa doesn’t take place in the Marais, it takes place in Belleville, and it is set in the 1970s, just as it was filmed, but it is very much in the spirit of such tales.

Belleville in the 1970s was a hub for immigrants, mostly from North Africa, mostly Jews. But it is also near Pigalle, the red light district, and it is this unusual location that makes this story, based on the 1975 novel The Life Before Us, so fascinating. The titular Madame (Simone Signoret) is a deeply traumatized Holocaust survivor and retired prostitute who has made a habit of taking in the abandoned children of her younger colleagues. As a result, this is not so much her story as that of her eldest charge Mohammed (Sami Ben-Youb). With Rosa dying, her other children being sent off, Mohammed is the last person to truly care for her, an incredible burden on the boy as he wonders about his parentage, seeks guidance from an increasingly senile and blind imam (Gabriel Jabbour), and contemplates his nascent adolescence with a beautiful young film editor (Michal Bat-Adam).

Madame Rosa is deeply imperfect. It meanders frustratingly through its first half, and the editing always seems a bit off– in an at least refreshing contrast to badly edited movies from this year, scenes end slightly sooner than they should– but it is a touching and also somewhat disturbing story, anchored by Signoret’s performance and the odd characters around Rosa and Mohammed.

How Did It Do?
Madame Rosa grossed $5.2 million in the United States and around $4 million in France, depending on how much tickets cost there. The film also benefitted greatly from the timing of its release, coinciding as it did with President Carter’s sponsorship of peace talks between Israel and Egypt in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. With a RottenTomatoes score of 83%, many critics openly gave Madame Rosa a pass for its questionably loose narrative and editing in favor of endorsing both its story and production as an example of Arab-Jewish cooperation.

Madame Rosa was the last film released to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it won. By my estimation it shouldn’t have, but there are a couple of reasons why it might have won. The first is political: Molly Haskell of New York Magazine strongly suspected that the award had been given thereto as a compromise for giving Best Supporting Actress to Vanessa Redgrave in light of her…contemporary efforts (That thing keeps coming back, though Madame Rosa’s Israeli director, Moshe Mizrahi, actually agreed with Redgrave). The second is that, while the award probably should’ve gone to A Special Day, the Academy, reflecting Old Hollywood’s longstanding paranoia about scaring away Midwestern Goyim, were spooked by that movie’s unapologetic gay themes, though the notoriously homophobic country of Italy interestingly had no problem submitting it. But I digress.

Next Time: Pete’s Dragon

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

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That Obscure Object of Desire
Cet Obscure Objet du Desir
Dir. Luis Buñuel
Premiered August 17, 1977

In the final scene of Luis Buñuel’s last directorial effort, a radio announcer proclaims that an assortment of terrorist groups, who have overrun the oddly placid version of contemporary France and Spain here depicted and made random violence as common as ordering pizza, have suddenly all joined forces. That this should happen is incredibly strange, as the insurgents range from Communists to Anarchists to hardline Catholics. But all have a common interest in changing your mind, and so too does Conchita, the film’s unpredictable titular object of desire.

The film opens in Seville, as wealthy French widower Mathieu (Fernando Rey) cleans up the remains of a violent affair in his hotel. Hoping to return to Paris as quickly as possible, he is disappointed to discover he must change trains in Madrid. Nevertheless, all of the other passengers in his compartment are also headed to Paris, and are intrigued to hear what led him to dump a bucket of cold water on a mysterious woman on the platform. Mathieu assures his captive audience that they will soon understand his actions, but I’m not so certain.

Conchita, comes into Mathieu’s life as his maid. Mathieu immediately takes an erotic interest in her. He claims only to be interested in sex with a woman he truly loves, but Conchita strongly doubts him, and sets out to test whether he truly loves her. So begins an endlessly repeated cat-and-mouse game whereby Mathieu unexpectedly meets Conchita, attempts to woo her, Conchita refuses to have sex with him (but will do anything else), but then angrily leaves him whenever he pushes the issue; over and over from one day to the next, and one country to another. Accordingly, Mathieu, a wealthy man of influence who seems never to have faced rejection, is driven to madness by Conchita’s actions, driving his obsession further.

Adding brilliantly to the confusion is that Conchita is played by two different actresses. At times, the role is performed by Carole Bouquet, at others she is more aggressively inhabited by Angela Molina. That Obscure Object of Desire is one of several adaptations (and amazingly the last to date) of the 1898 novel The Girl and the Puppet, a cautionary tale about the danger of falling into a trap of only wanting what you can’t have. Leave it to Buñuel to take it to an extreme.

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Signs This Was Made in 1977
The terrorist content is a particular feature. Nearly every sequence is accompanied by an act of terror. Jokes are made about the ubiquity of airplane hijackings. The trial of a terrorist group is a major plot point.

How Did It Do?
That Obscure Object of Desire was a hit with critics then and now, earning a 100% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. The decision to cast two actresses as Conchita was particularly praised, impressively for a gimmick born from the adversity of working with the unknown actress who was first hired to play her, and has found its place in the work of filmmakers from B.P. Paquette, to Todd Haynes, to (ugh) Todd Solondz, to me.

Luis Buñuel never made another film, passing away in 1983. His 48-year directorial career was never forgotten.

Next Time: The Duellists