Accents of Persepolis

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Finally got to see Persepolis. It is better, even, than it had to be. Very faithful to the comic — I was amazed at how well it manages to encompass pretty much the whole story as told in the comic without seeming rushed, all the while adding its own accents to the proceedings. While close to the comic, the film applies a slightly different, more refined aesthetic to the story. Applying to the settings as it does lushly applied grey tones and moments of iconic symbology, such as the scene where the Shah’s army violently suppresses the demonstration at the beginning of the film, it is at least one step removed from the effective if somewhat crude minimalism of the comic. A more emphatic and emotional, not to mention quite gorgeous, presentation of the material.

This is apparent in scenes such as the one describing the young Marjane in love for the first time. Making use of all the filmic clichés for the description of young love, it borders on the banal, but nevertheless rings true because it precisely seeks to describe the grand naïvité of a teenager in love, and at the same time hilariously defuses the situation once Marjane discovers her boyfriend’s infidelity and suddenly sees him in an entirely different, and entirely unflattering, light — a humorous sequence of a kind almost entirely absent from the comic that works to great effect in the movie.

The voice performances seem a little stilted to begin with; everything is very clearly, almost didactically enunciated. One however quickly gets used to this approach — surely a conscious choice — and starts appreciating it as an essential component to the seemingly effortless clarity of storytelling that makes the narrative strike such a true note. Chiara Mastrioanni, as Marjane, manages everything from depressed rumination to a resolute, deliciously inept sing-along rendition of “Eye of the Tiger.” Catherine Deneuve is admirably underplayed as her mother, while Danielle Darrieux is formidable as the rugged and wise grandmother. Add to this almost pitch-perfect pacing and arrangement of the narrative, with scenes from Marjane’s personal life and backdrop-providing sequences of historical motion smoothly interspersed to form a story that at times is almost dreamlike in its flow, yet unmistakably real.

Whatever problems the film has derive from the source material, primarily the at times excessive self-flattering description by Satrapi of her younger self. While hers is certainly a story of everyday heroism, Satrapi’s self-representation as someone who almost invariably sees through the bullshit around her ends up making her come off as something of a wiseass, and at times even a little self-righteous. The same goes for the memorable and entertaining description of the grandmother, which though affecting at times veers troublingly close to sentimentalist cliché. Never a huge problem, it nevertheless diminishes Persepolis somewhat as an artistic achievement. It misses some of the insight into its characters that is so pivotal to its follow-up, the less significant but also less flawed Chicken with Plums.

That should not prevent anyone from reading the comic or seeing the film, however. Both are brilliant, and as mentioned offer deliciously differently accented tellings of a compelling and moving human story.

Persepolis (2007), directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronnaud. Website, MySpace, Rackham‘s review of the comic, as well as of Satrapi’s Embroideries and Chicken with Plums (all three in Danish).

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