This review was written for the festival screening of Persepolis.
CANNES — Discussions may grow heated following the premiere of Persepolis at the Festival de Cannes. But those discussions will focus more on the movie’s politics than art. Persepolis is an animated feature by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud based on Satrapi’s graphic novel about her growing up in Mullah-ridden Iran during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. The young woman, who now lives in Paris, paints a grim picture, one familiar to those of us in the West but one that many Iranians and Islamic fundamentalists will no doubt vehemently reject.
The drawings themselves are plain, very generalized and almost entirely in black and white. Perhaps Satrapi and Paronnaud feared that, were the animation more vital and realistic, the film would become too cartoonish and vulgar. Perhaps they’re right. But as animation Persepolis is fairly uninteresting as the facial features do not convey much individuality.
Satrapi’s dramatic young life so far has been anything but uninteresting. So the film should attract those interested in women’s issues and politics in specialty venues. However, Sony Pictures Classics will have to market hard to reach out to adult moviegoers beyond those categories in North America.
Satrapi — called Marjane in the film and voiced by Chiara Mastroianni — is at a Paris airport, thinking back on her life, starting as a child under the Shah. While the country is modernized and Westernized by the Shah, much to the young girl’s approval, her family chafe under the dictatorship, which sees family members imprisoned.
The glorious days of the Revolution last only briefly before Islamic Law cracks down on improper — read: Western — behavior and fashions. The film wrings wry humor from the black market young Marjane frequents to get tapes of Iron Maiden and cosmetics. During the eight-year war with Iraq, which ground up 1 million lives, the government cracks down further on dissent, executing thousands of political opponents.
Marjane’s mom (Catherine Deneuve) and dad (Simon Abkarian) send her to Vienna to study but really to escape as she proves to be “just like her uncle,” a rebellious personality jailed by both the Shah and the Mullahs. In Austria, she indulges in western “decadence” — alcohol, cigarettes and sex. She experiences first love and its disappointment. A second love’s bitter aftermath throws her into deep depression and even leaves her homeless for a while.
She begs her parents to let her return to Tehran, but the tyrannical restrictions on women’s clothing and all social behavior plunge her into another depression. When she marries her boyfriend so they can be together outside of her house, the marriage is a failure. This brings about her decision to head for Paris and the life of an exile. But freedom has its price.
The film has many wonderful details such as her grandmother (the great Danielle Darrieux), who puts jasmine flowers inside her bra each morning so she will smell sweet and fresh. Or the malevolent security forces filled with young men with abiding hatred for women. Or her nighttime conversations with God and Karl Marx, deities who both fail her at times.
The filmmakers were right to believe that a live-action version of this story would have failed to achieve the universality Persepolis does. (In the department of thankfully avoided horrors, Satrapi has disclosed she was even offered a movie that would have starred Jennifer Lopez and Brad Pitt as her parents!) Animation allows any viewer to experience the story not as an exotic tale but as something happening to a person with whom we can readily identify.
Sony Pictures Classics
2.4.7 Films/France 3 Cinema
Screenwriters-directors: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud
Based on the graphic novel by: Marjane Satrapi
Art director: Marc-Anthony Robert, Xavier Rigault
Animation: Marc Jousset, Christian Desmares
Production designer: Marisa Musy
Music: Olivier Bernet
Animation coordinator: Christian Desmares
Editor-compositor: Stephane Roche
Marjane: Chiara Mastroianni
Tadji: Catherine Deneuve
Grandmother: Danielle Darrieux
Ebi: Simon Abkarian
Uncle Anouche: Francois Jerosme
Running time — 95 minutes
No MPAA rating