"Boutique" - Hamid Nematollah (2003)

Certainly love is the principal driver of artistic expression, and the film medium’s capability of immersing the viewer in the rich, particularized experiences of its subjects onscreen makes it ideally suited to telling stories of love.  Nevertheless, really good love stories in film are often hard to come by, presumably because each person’s love experience is personal and unique – watching someone else's romantic experiences may not relate much to one's own amorous dreams.  Indeed the lover’s dream world often follows no evident logic at all, so how is it possible to tell it's story? Nevertheless, sometimes a film can mysteriously conjure up that subjective dream world for the viewer to see and feel as his or her own.  Boutique (Butik, 2003), the debut outing of Iranian writer-director Hamid Nematollah, tells the story of Jahangir and Eti, two star-crossed young people living in the big city.  Actually, it’s Jahan’s story – the focalization is entirely on Jahangir, and everything is seen from his perspective.  But Jahan's story is mostly about Eti.

Jahan lives in a downtown apartment with three other equally impoverished bachelors all trying to make a go of it in modern Iran.  At least Jahan has a job, working as a clerk at a clothing outlet boutique in a shopping mall.  “Doc” is a long-ago dropout from medical studies who is apparently going to try his hand at street vending.  Reza is out of work and living off family support.  And Behzad is a fragile young man whose depression is being treated by regular sessions of electroshock (electroconvulsive) therapy.  (It’s amazing to me that electroshock therapy is still administered to thousands of people all around the world, even though so little is known about its neurological effects.) 
Very early on in the film, Jahan recognizes a young woman walking on the sidewalk and approaches her.  Apparently this pretty teenager, Eti, had earlier visited Jahan’s boutique and had made a deposit for a pair of slacks, but she had neglected to come and complete the transaction.  This is the first of what will be many encounters, almost all of which will be on the city streets.  Young people everywhere have the problem of finding places where they can be relatively alone.  In Iran this is particularly difficult, but sometimes there is the “safety in numbers” shelter that comes with the hustle and bustle of the crowded city streets.

Of course, there are other things that inhibit Jahan and Eti in their encounters.  One is the problem of their relative impoverishment.  Jahan is poor and basically has nothing – he and his flatmates sleep on the floor in sleeping bags in their unfurnished apartment.  Eti also has nothing: it is later revealed that she is a teenage runaway who has no source of income and is staying with “some friends”, who can’t even afford their own living quarters.  Jahan is warned by one of his more established friends, Davoud, that he shouldn’t spend time with a girl off the street like Eti.  And naturally, Eti is suspicious of any man who might be suspected of wanting to take advantage of her.  So Eti continually vacillates between first infectious flirtatiousness and then, as if she has to remind herself not to be too friendly to men that she doesn't know very well, sulking withdrawals and accusations that Jahan is being presumptuous.
It’s also not surprising that Eti’s effervescent and enthusiastic confidence is mixed with utter naivete – something we would naturally expect in an exuberant and unworldly young girl.  She tells Jahan that she wants to go abroad.  When Jahan asks her how she will live, she assures him that she will get a job as an entertainer, because she is pretty and has a good singing voice.  She tells him that she is now trying to raise 400,000 tomans to give to a “good” man whom she knows and who will take her to a foreign country.  Jahan doesn’t say much to that, but he knows that 400,000 tomans (about US$ 400) is an absurdly low amount of money for such planned travel.  Eti is clearly being taken for a ride by some sort of con man.

Jahan tries to help Eti, but he and his mates are all trying to make their way in a world that is driven by money, privilege, and corruption.  There is an enormous separation between rich and poor, between the corrupt elite and those struggling to find a job.  Jahan’s boutique is owned by Mr. Shapoori, a heroin-addicted autocrat who treats his employees like puppets.  In fact the heroin and opium drug culture is a major element of Jahan’s environment, with some of his friends heavily addicted and involved in the trade.  The money that they do manage to acquire comes from that segment of society.  In fact this cynical depiction of the influence of drugs in society made me somewhat surprised that the film was allowed to be shown in Iran.

Nevertheless, Jahan manages to give Eti the pair of slacks that she covets and manages to get her a little extra money, too.  To do this, he has to borrow money from the boutique’s till, and this costs him his job – that is, until he shows sufficient subservience to Shapoori so that he can get the job back.  Jahan also manages to find some money, through the benevolence of his friend, Davoud, to attend to Eti’s urgent need for some dental surgery.

All the while, Jahan and Eti are getting to know each other better.  As they go about town to attend to their various errands, Eti maintains a constant, vivacious chatter, telling Jahan about all about her passions.  Jahan smiles but retains his cool and upright cordiality. 

Is Eti sincerely interested in Jahan, or is she just using him in order to somehow secure her desired 400,000 tomans?  Maybe it could be a bit of both.  And how committed to Eti is Jahan, who always plays his hand pretty close to his vest?  In a climactic scene when she really needs him to rescue her, he is powerless and ineffective.  What should he have done?  What could he have done?  In real life, even those involved in such circumstances often cannot answer questions like that.  

The violent, downbeat ending of the film is perhaps too much to be expected and dramatically disappointing.  We always knew that the loathsome Shapoori would be there at the end to cause trouble and infect the innocent with his cynical debauchery.  Perhaps this kind of denouement attends to and merely reflects the generally fatalistic current of Iranian culture, but it represents an abandonment of the narrative progression that had come before.  In any case the ending does highlight the frustration and sense of powerlessness that many people with dreams feel in today’s world.

What ultimately makes Boutique an effective film, though, is not the external narrative structure, but the subtle and evolving relationships, both healthy and twisted, that are depicted in the film.  This is aided by the acting in Boutique, which is excellent throughout. Mohammad Reza Golzar is suitably sensitive and manly as Jahangir, and Reza Rooygari has a compelling presence as the insidious Shapoori. Of course, the principal relationship is that between Jahan and Eti, and the  development of their friendship, with all its tentativeness is the key to the story.  This works because of the superb performance in the role of Eti on the part of the beautiful Golshifteh Farahani (Bab'Aziz, 2005; Half Moon (Niwemang); 2006; Ali Santouri, 2007).  It is perhaps less due to Ms. Farahani’s technical acting skills and more a consequence of her own natural, vivacious manner and screen presence.  In any case the then twenty-year-old Golshifteh was recognized for her performance by winning the Best Actress award at the Three Continents Festival held in Nantes, France, that year.  More recently in January 2012, Golshifteh was in the news again when the Iranian government banned her from returning to her home country, because she had allowed a nude picture of herself to be published in Madame Le Figaro magazine to protest the restrictions on women in Iranian society.  She reported [1] at the time  that she was
“told by a Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guide official that Iran does not need any actors or artists. You may offer your artistic services somewhere else."
I hope for the sake of all the rest of us, especially for those Iranians who hold a more enlightened view, that somewhere soon she will be given the opportunity to grace the screen again with her presence. 

Overall, I recommend Boutique, a film that deserves more attention than it has so far received.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Damien McElroy and Ahmad Vahdat, "Iranian Actress Banned from Homeland after Naked Magazine Shoot", The Telegraph, 18 January 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/9023031/Iranian-actress-banned-from-homeland-after-naked-magazine-shoot.html#.TxcCZb1_hsk.facebook.

3 comments:

Minority Report said...

hi, i seldom comment on blogs its an exception in this blog. i appreciate your taste for fine movies and reviews on though-provoking or existential movies... thankyou . pls carry on your efforts.

byesiler said...

http://cinematurkey.com/hamid-nematollah-boutique-2003/

Pat Owen said...

True, it is unknown how electric shock works but it does work for millions of depressed individuals. And, of course, it should only be administered under informed consent.

Your reviews of these wonderful movies are excellent!