Persepolis is an animated feature film based on the graphic novel(s) of Marjane Satrapi, an artist who grew up in Iran and now lives in France. The four volumes of the novel originally published in France have now been published as two volumes in the Unites States. We can think of these graphic novels as essentially comic books for an adult readership, and the film more or less attempts to recreate the same experience on celluloid. Like the novels, the film has attracted enormous interest and near universal praise. One of the additional attractions of the film is the casting of the voice characters, which include famous French personalities, Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni (daughter of Deneuve and Marcell Mastroianni), and legendary screen goddess, Danielle Darrieux, who was near ninety years old. Reviews of Persepolis have been overwhelmingly positive, an exception being the one piece that I found illuminating, and with which I am in accord: Rahul Hamid’s article in Cineaste magazine.
The story is largely autobiographical and follows the life of Satrapi, who was born in Iran in 1969. The first part covers her childhood growing up in a progressive household during the Shah’s regime. It describes how the members of her family suffered from the Shah’s oppressive government and rejoiced during the revolutionary period. It then traces how things became progressively worse under the new government dominated by religious zealots and the ensuing tragic and disruptive events of the Iran-Iraq war. Throughout this period, Marjane is shown as something of a willful, sometimes rebellious, girl, seeing things from the perspective typical of young girls in many other parts of the world. She is sometimes swept up in the feverish political climate in fashion, but at other times seeks to satisfy her own personal indulgences, such as contraband punk rock music.
Her rebellious nature causes her worried parents to send their outspoken daughter off to schooling in Vienna, and there she falls into a social scene laced with drugs and amorous relations. After a series of emotional setbacks there, including a period of homelessness, the alienated Marjane decides to return to Iran. However, once back in Iran, even though the war is over, the social climate seems even more oppressive than it had been before she had left. She tries to adapt to the difficult circumstances in Iran, falls in love with a young man, and gets married. But the marriage soon falls apart, and at the end of the film, Marjane decides to leave Iran forever and start a new life in France.
Perhaps the key element of this film, and the key to its popularity, is the emphatic political criticism it dishes out. Because cartoons are invariably simplified and abstract exaggerations of reality, this criticism depicts the political situation in Iran as one enduring and ever-worsening nightmare. (This is not to deny the distressing experiences of those who have lived through these harrowing times, but only an acknowledgement of the limitations inherent in cartoon presentations.) The stark black-and-white graphics of the film amplify this effect and render this depiction in expressionistic terms, particularly when the thuggish “guardians” come to impose their sense of male-chauvinist “justice” on innocent people. This film, then, is a courageous statement by Satrapi, whose family might suffer from those who feel insulted by this film. Despite the strong criticism expressed concerning the way things are in Iran, however, it's notable that there is no reference in the film to Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Khamenei, or any other contemporary political figure.
To a certain extent the cartoon medium allows one to get away with political criticism more easily than one could with real, physical depictions. The cartoon world makes it all a bit less real. But this is also a problem, because the cartoon context can also trivialize the awful brutality of concrete reality. The horrors of the Iran-Iraq war, with its one million deaths, flies by awfully quickly in this story. This trivialization is exacerbated by the intermixing of various attempts at satire. When I was watching the film in the theater, there was often laughter from the audience, but I didn’t feel that there was much in the film to laugh about. Rather than offering a compelling story, the film boils down to being basically just the diary of a young woman who has lived through turbulent times. Do the exaggeration and trivialization inherent in comics balance each other? Perhaps.
But just as with all diaries, the presentation is an unstructured sequence of events, some of which are significant and some of which are not. It’s just one thing after another. And, of course, this film also has the same self-interested focus that all diaries necessarily have. Admittedly, in one sense, this is a strength, because it gives the story a certain integrity: these events really happened to someone. Yet on the other hand, because it’s all presented in the over-the-top style of a cartoon, there is an air of unreality to the proceedings. The character of Marjane, herself, doesn’t come across as a fascinating personality. Apart from being a female version of Bart Simpson, we don’t really have a sense of her as a person.
So I came away disappointed from the film. Yes, it is a courageous presentation of very serious situations, seen through the eyes of someone who has lived through them. This is a story that should and must be told, and one can only admire the author. But this particular telling of the story didn’t quite work. I don't mean to suggest that the disappointing end result of this particular work means that the kind of expressionist graphic rendering attempted in this film cannot ever work. But the story needs to be told differently. In the case of Persepolis, the graphic presentations only look like direct visualizations of textual diary statements. For example, when a love story is told in an effective film, we can be made to feel empathy for the feelings of the lovers and share somewhat their experiences. But in this film, love is only represented by trite symbols, and the empathic feelings do not emerge. We are a bit too distant from the action. Persepolis does not have the kind of narrative rhythm and vitality that is possible to achieve and which one looks for in the film medium.