Jasmine: Film Review

A fascinating, mixed-media animation-documentary hybrid about a love lost in revolutionary turmoil.

French director Alain Ughetto combines animation, existing footage and live action to chronicle his love affair with the title character against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution.

Jasmine, from French animator and documentary veteran Alain Ughetto, adds another largely autobiographical, almost documentary-like animated film set in the Middle East to the tiny sub-genre that includes Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir.

More of a mixed media feature that both these films, Ughetto's very personal take on his relationship with the titular protagonist during the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s combines claymation, the director's super-8 images shot in Iran at the time, contextual archival footage and even some live-action interventions during the animated sequences. This unusual approach makes the personal angle of the story even more tangible, but it also means that it won't travel as easily as Jasmine's peers, since audiences aren't used to films that so liberally mix and match media, sometimes in the same frame, as when Ughetto's hands can be seen modeling the Plasticine figures that represent him and the titular protagonist.

Jasmine, which was released on a few French screens Oct. 30 and was also a recent surprise nominee for a European Film Award in the animation category, should nonetheless be able to charm, especially at more avant-garde fests, as well as those interested in arty animated or documentary titles with a personal touch.

The main narrative of the film is constructed from letters Ughetto, voiced by veteran French actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin, exchanged with Jasmine (voiced by Fanzaneh Ramzi, actually a pseudonym) in French after they met in Aix-en-Provence in the 1970s. There, Ughetto was already dabbling in claymation and Jasmine, an actress, studied theater of the absurd. Their love story eventually took both to Tehran, where Jasmine lived in an apartment in the city that allowed her "to be closer to work,"  though in reality it allowed her to live with her director lover.

After a 10-minute prologue that provides the film's backstory over archive and super-8 footage of Iran and shots of the countless letters the couple sent each other, the figurines representing the two protagonists are brought to life. Because Jasmine's eyes were blue, she’s become a blue Plasticine figurine, with two almost skull-like cavities for eyes as her only facial features. The other inhabitants of the sprawling capital are all little blue men as well, while Ughetto's alter ego is yellow, effectively making him stand out as a stranger amidst a people.

Tehran is entirely constructed out of polystyrene packaging material (the material used in cardboard boxes to protect large electrical appliances), and painted in sandy yellows that starkly contrast with the blue locals, but let Ughetto occasionally almost disappear, visually conveying a sense he felt somewhat lost.

The couple's initial happiness and intimacy is shown in an extraordinary scene that, more than straightforward lovemaking, can best be described as the demonstration of the increasing unity of their souls, with the two colors of the figurines' clay increasingly folded into each other until one swirl of blue-yellow clay remains. The fingerprints of the real Ughetto are in full view, a visual reminder of how important the sense of touch can be for lovers.

Their idyllic romance, however, is rudely interrupted by the calls for the Iranian Shah to step down and the subsequent events of the Iranian revolution, during which Ayatollah Khomeini finally came back from exile to turn the country into an Islamic republic. The momentous events, some of them harrowing, led the lovers to drift apart or misunderstand each other, with Ughetto finally returning to France -- though their story isn't quite over yet, with a surprising coda still in store.

Historical details of the Iranian Revolution and the universal and conflicting emotions of love are constantly juxtaposed in Remi Dumas and Catherina Catella's editing, making the film at once a very specific and very universal story of love lost in revolutionary turmoil.

Production companies: Les Films tambours de soie, Mouvement
Cast: Fanzaneh Ramzi, Jean-Pierre Darroussin
Director: Alain Ughetto
Screenwriters: Alain Ughetto, Jacques Reboud, Chloe Inguenaud
Producers: Alexandre Cornu, Michel Casalta, Alain Ughetto
Director of photography: Pierre Benzrihem
Production designer: Bernard Vezat, Sylvain Tetrel
Music: Isabelle Courroy
Editors: Catherina Catella, Remi Dumas
No rating, 70 minutes.