Persepolis

Reviewed by Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (Competition)–An exuberant, funny and troubling portrait of young female consciousness caught in a historic thrust of political and cultural turmoil, Marjane Satrapis four-volume autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis has been lovingly and faithfully rendered as a stylishly accomplished French-language animated feature.

Satrapi and her collaborator, Vincent Paronnaud, demonstrate intelligence, wit and imagination with their dominantly monochromatic ink black drawings that are clearly influenced by Art Spiegelmans Maus. The high contrast black and white work, with some interpolations of gray and occasional drips of color in the contemporary material, yields a dense and busy interlay of vertical shapes and fluid movement. Satrapis narrative is not exactly the existential horror of the Holocaust though it is marked by a permanent sadness and sense of lost promise and hope.

Told in flashback and narrated by the adult Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni), the story is an origins tale about a young girl coming of age during the cataclysmic events of the Irans Islamic Revolution. The movie explores how the revolution effectively disposed one brand of dictator, the Shah, only to watch with unflinching horror the loss of personal freedom and strict crackdown of political, religious and social dissent by the new ruling leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The repercussions on Marjanes family are not theoretical; theyre ugly, fractious and devastating, marked by secret detention and state sponsored executions.

The story begins in 1978 and ends approximately two decades later with Marjanes arrival in France. The material is so good, unpredictable and eerie the texture acquires the frightening alienation and strangeness of a science fiction work. More problematically the filmmakers work at an accelerated clip to cram in as much information and expository detail as possible and the flow and rhythm suffers occasionally. The presentation tends toward the episodic animated by quickness and speed that sometimes suffers a loss of context or depth.

Marjane is voiced as a young girl by the marvelous Gabrielle Lopes. Growing up in Tehran, the only child of intellectual parents who value her independence and exposure to culture and reading, Marjane is rambunctious, inquisitive and funny. Told by her teachers to revere the Shah, she originally supports his position until her father, in a bracingly funny though angry account, reveals how British and American officials installed the Shahs family in power. It begins her political education, where she learns about the hardships and political crackdown on members of her own family.

Marjane feels the theocratic state crackdown personally, particularly as the behavior of women is strictly enforced and they are forced to wear veils that cover their face. As the Islamic government takes shape, she discovers how the rights of women cruelly stripped away if not outright discarded. In one of the most powerful scenes, she witnesses a man make a crude and humiliating sexual taunt against her mother (voiced by Catherine Deneuve) that leaves her mother shaken and in tears.

The strongest work is the cultural collision between Marjanes developing consciousness about her sexuality and her interest in music and outlawed writers dramatized against the state sponsored crackdown. In a wonderful moment, wearing a coat emblazoned with her new credo, Punk is not ded, Marjane negotiates with a black market operative the cost of an Iron Maiden tape cassette. A police officer tells her to stop running because it causes your bottom to move in obscene ways. She looks straight at him and says: Stop looking at my ass.

The middle sections take a severe, dark turn with the eruption of the tragic eight-year Iraq and Iran war. The charcoal black panels take on a deeper resonance here, accompanied by food shortages. The speed and tempo accelerates with frightening precision, the imagery now more austere and punishing, like a startling subjective shot that replicates the trajectory of a bomb launched into Tehran. With increasing fear to her safety, at the outset of her teenage years, Marjane is dispatched to a French school in Vienna.

If she suddenly experiences a burst of freedom, listening to music, going to clubs, meeting guys, Marjane remains out of joint comically detailing her plight of alienation and exile. She also discovers the greatest heartbreak of all, sexual betrayal at the hands of her boyfriend, that sends her reeling and back to Tehran.

By the time she arrives back home the war is over though the state-sponsored repression of sexuality and freedom has grown more intense. In an anatomy class at her school, Marjane looks on dumbfounded as the model stands there fully clothed. It reflects the Its the same from every angle, she says. The material works emotionally not only because of Satrapis strong and deep attachment, and her sharp ability to work different emotional textures from absurdist, peculiar to sad and devastating. By casting a mother (Deneuve) and daughter (Mastroianni), the filmmakers make explicit that emotional bond through their intricate vocal phrasing and inflections.

Most important, the work covers the life of a young woman examined from adolescence into young adulthood. The movie is framed in very adult context, regardless of her corresponding age or the situation, a point made explicit by the way 15-year-old boys are drafted into military service or turned into frightening state police operatives. The context and tone extends to the private realm as well, like the occasional harshness of the language, the sexual situations and the hilarious pronouncements of Marjanes grandmother (fantastically voiced by Danielle Darrieux).

Persepolis turns occasionally sentimental and crude. The illustrations by Satrapi and Paronnaud take on a beguiling form and attraction. It never avoids complex issues of how the personal and political intersect. It is told from an emerging womans point of view though it never shelters the harshness of life and emotional complications that ensue. It is streaked in pain and sadness, of loss and pain. The world is vivid, detailed and alive, always looking at the past to shape the future.