Text By: Basil Swartzfager
Original Publication Date: November 11th, 2014
There are heartbreaking moments early in Persepolis, but its overall impact is hampered by memoir-driven narrative and a penchant for indulging in bad sitcom humor to soften the blow of its tragedy. It wants to be an affecting piece of personal history, offering one human’s specific viewpoint of a time in history often overlooked and misunderstood in “the West.” Originally published as a series of comic books from 2000 to 2003, it’s easy to see the courage and necessity of her undertaking. It attempts to show Iran from the perspective of someone who really lived there, to dispel myths of what people who live there are like. But the film never finds the right tone or story to carry it through, falling back on tired gags as if an animated film has no right to exist if there aren’t funny parts, and using its coming-of-age narrative to justify an emotionally disjointed and unsatisfying whole.
An early example of this dichotomy of the sublime being under cut by well-tread attempts at humor comes soon after the regime changes, and the Shah is replaced with the Islamic Republic. We get a scene of Marjane as a young girl and her mother out shopping. A man approaches them in the parking lot and tells her to fix her head scarf (the chador was by this time required of all women in public). and she tells him to be more polite and show her some respect. Immediately angered he declares, "Me respect you? I screw women like you and dump them in the garbage."
It's a terrifying scene that converges a wide range elements and emotions: the sense of entitlement men feel under the new regime, the withering away of the mother’s ideals (she and Marjane’s father assisted in the resistance that overthrew the Shah), the very real fear that a man could assault and murder her with impunity. The film balances all these emotions, but then adds the extra layer of Marjane’s presence. This informs the mother’s response, as she seeks to shield Marjane from the reality of his words and their effect on her. But the film undercuts this moment’s effectiveness as they drive away. Stopped at a traffic light, they linger after the light changes and a man behind them honks to get moving. The mother rolls down the window, yells, “go to hell, scumbag!” and peels out, leaving the man in a plume of exhaust smoke, his perplexed cartoon eyeballs peering out at the audience. This punchline turns the scene into a comic vignette, taking something real, full of emotional complexity, and turns it into a joke that can be shrugged off as we move on to the next moment.
The film echoes this tonal imbalance in its form, alternating grim long shots of loneliness and death with cute, prototypically cartoonish medium shots of similarly life-threatening situations. How each scene is handled seems entirely determined by the whims of the film’s creator, and without any strong regard for internal rhythm or sense of narrative propulsion. So one scene we might get Marjane’s mother pleading helplessly with an official, framed in silhouette and dominated by a black oblivion surrounding them. Then in another scene we have Marjane and her grandmother dumping alcohol down the toilet so that police won’t find it and sliding coyly into frame, grandmother from offscreen left and Marjane from offscreen right like Bugs and Daffy getting one over on Porky Pig, instead of a situation where they could all be murdered or, at least, arrested.
I understand that a tone of sheer drama and tragedy would be difficult to sell -- to an audience, to a studio, especially as a cartoon -- and, more than that, wouldn’t be true to life. Even in horribly oppressive situations people still find moments of lightness. But I think there’s a way in which serious situations can be handled sincerely, fully conveying the reality of their seriousness without injecting artificial levity into them, and that those moments can be tempered over the course of a narrative with moments of sweet-hearted, less serious reality. An excellent example of this comes when Marjane goes to black market street sellers to buy music. The various dealers mutter band names under their breath (one even intentionally pronouncing Michael Jackson as "Jichael Mackson"), balancing the need to advertise their wares with a desire for discretion. The scene plays on cinematic depictions of drug dealers, highlighting the ridiculousness of a regime that treats music as an illicit substance.
There are enough strong moments in Persepolis’ first thirty minutes that, if these complaints were all I had, the film would still be worthy of recommendation. But, unfortunately, the film is not content to fashion a narrative that mingles the autobiographical with the fictional, putting together a portrait of childhood in ‘70s and ‘80s Iran. Instead it sticks to the facts, and this means following Marjane to school in Vienna, after her parents send her away out of fear for the worsening situation. This segment is a chore to sit through, as it rehashes nearly all of the dullest coming-of-age tropes: angst-ridden romance, struggles with surrogate parental figures, the difficulty of finding a satisfying peer group. These moments never achieve a non-narrative slice-of-life quality, eschewing overarching story for well-observed pieces of believable childhood. And they also never coalesce into a compelling flip-side to Marjane’s time in Iran. If the story of the film is one of loss of the sanctity of home, that at one point she felt at home with her family in Iran and that the oppression of the Islamic Republic took that from her, but she can also never feel at home living abroad, away from her family and the culture she grew up in, the film contains so much material extraneous to that narrative that it becomes buried in the mass of isolated set-pieces. And digging it out does not give those set-pieces more meaning, it only serves to make the film’s lack of focus all the more frustrating. Because that is absolutely a personal story worth telling, but the film fails to give it to us. At best it’s a tragic history lesson wrapped in narcissism.
-Basil Swartzfager, 2017