Persepolis12A, London and key cities
Persepolis, an animated feature about coming of age in Iran, is kind of interesting and is kind of original but its telling moments are told so often it’s like going out to dinner and being served the same course over and over. You’ll look at it coming and think, ‘Oh, no, not that again.’ Actually, this is not entirely true, and possibly unfair. There are some delicious, intensely enjoyable morsels to be had here and there, plus it probably features the best Iranian grandma you’ll see in an animated film about Iran this year. In fact, I’d bet my life on it. But it’s a simple story, simply told, and while we are all for simple stories simply told it can feel as if you’re being repeatedly beaten round the head by a Ladybird book on the Islamic Revolution.
This is a film by and about Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian who now lives in France and whose memoirs, written in the graphic-novel form, became best-sellers. She has adapted her own work here, and also directs along with Vincent Paronnaud, and it’s all told in that crude, monochrome style so reminiscent of Czech animations of the Sixties, not that I’ve ever seen any Czech animations from the Sixties, or have any knowledge of them whatsoever, but you get my drift, I think.
Anyway, this particular style, which may or may not have been so beloved of the Czechs in the Sixties — and which makes women in burkas look as if they are being sucked into black holes — is childlike but also brilliantly clever. It’s as abstract as it is generic and so makes Persepolis feel as if it isn’t just another film about distant lands and people who don’t look like us. Also, it allows us to slip easily into the world of Marjane, who is seven when we first meet her and as precocious as she is defiant. She wears Adidas trainers and is into Bruce Lee and communism (‘Down with the Shah’) and, later, Western music as sold on cassette by shady loiterers in the manner of drug dealers: ‘Hey, you wanna buy some Iron Maiden?’
Marjane’s parents are left-wing intellectuals who suffer first under the Shah’s dictatorship and then, as the triumphant Islamic revolutionaries turn on their secular allies, under the rule of the mullahs. The political history, which includes war, torture and execution, is told utterly and completely in the Ladybird style:
‘Here is the Shah. The Shah is bad. Bad, bad Shah. See the Shah, children, and how bad he is? Be off, Shah, be off. See how happy the people are, now the Shah is gone...’ And so on, through to the hopes that are raised and then dashed when the fundamentalists take power. Still, at least it doesn’t take it out of you like, say, Kandahar, the 2001 film by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf which is set in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taleban. That asked for a lot. This asks for nothing. And while I like being asked for nothing — ask me for nothing and I’ll do my utmost to comply — Persepolis is just too black and white, in every way.
Whatever, the most delicious morsels are not in the political anyhow. They are in Marjane’s own particular, personal story; a story which takes her into exile in Vienna, follows her as she discovers first love (very funny) and then betrayed love (even funnier), and then sees her return to the Tehran of the 1980s where holding hands in public can lead to a whipping and women can’t run down the street as a jiggling bottom has been declared immodest. An ugly business, but at least there is Marjane’s Grandma. Wonderful, wonderful Grandma who has a foul mouth (‘Marjane, you’re so tall now you’ll grab God’s balls’), soaks each breast in ice-cold water for ten minutes every day to keep them round and pert, and packs her bra daily with freshly picked jasmine flowers so that she always smells fresh and lovely. (She is not like my grandma, who I think always used rollmop herrings.) Ultimately, this is a film about family, love and seeking a better life elsewhere that may not be better at all, because it just isn’t home.
I would say that if you fancy Persepolis do try to see the French version with subtitles. I saw the dubbed English-language version which is all done with annoying American accents. Plus, in the French version, you get Catherine Deneuve as Marjane’s mother, which has to be something, even if you can’t understand a word. We’re never told why Persepolis is called ‘Persepolis’, which was the capital of the Persian Empire in ancient times, but I imagine it has something to do with saying, ‘This country has been around for a long, long time, you fundamentalist creeps, and it will outlive you all, ha, ha.’ I imagine this just as I imagine Czech animations in the Sixties, so between you and me I wouldn’t set much store by it, if any at all.