by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, France, Sony Pictures Classics
In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's animated adaptation of Satrapi’s graphic-novel autobiography about a young girl growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and Iran's war with Iraq, episodic stories give Western readers and many others a glimpse into a fascinating world during a tumultuous era, and the author's illustrations express the caricatured, exaggerated impressions of a young child. But being someone who's just never really felt attuned to the art of the graphic novel, throughout I couldn’t help but think that even the best panel of Persepolis might be substituted by a better written description of the same represented event or emotion. Such a suspicion could make me something of a hypocrite, since I obviously have no problems with another image-based form of storytelling, cinema. Maybe, then, it's not any inherent flaws of the form of the graphic novel but Persepolis itself, which, despite its successes, feels ever so slight, the sort of product that, while not unintelligent, flatters its sophisticated but undemanding audience with the constant reassurance of tasteful propriety.
Persepolis in cinematic form is pretty much what would one expect when Satrapi's black-and-white drawings are given fluid life. The simple, single line-based sparseness of her illustrations evoke much more when stock still on a page, where the imagination has room to play, than when placed in motion, and the film is only halfway successful in evoking the varying moods and experiences of Marji, Satrapi's younger self. As written and directed by Satrapi and comic artist Paronnaud, the French-produced Persepolis works as best it can as a precocious and relatable vision of childhood one-third of the way through, when it recounts Marji's forced, rapid maturation during the revolution and the war. But when the same mode of address and the same animation gimmicks carry over into Marji's adolescence and years as a young woman (where the graphic novel Persepolis 2 takes over from its predecessor) the film becomes dramatically strained. The unique drama of a first romance pales in comparison to, say, seeing one's neighbor buried under a pile of rubble, and the stark style of Satrapi's illustrations is ill equipped to handle the more complex, or at least more self-consciously gauged, emotional and intellectual life of an adult. The major drawback to the animation in Persepolis is that none of its action is vivid. It's perfect for depicting a beginning stage of human development, perhaps, but can barely capture the finer nuances of depression, marriage, etc.
Which is too bad, because Persepolis would have made for a humorous and sorrowful short film. Marji, drawn for maximum adorability and voiced by Gabrielle Lopes (Chiara Mastroianni does vocal duties for the later years), starts off as a smart, inquisitive girl who worships Bruce Lee and holds conversations with God, but is confused by the political and social turmoil rocking Iran in the late Seventies. Her parents have to explain that the Shah was not appointed by heaven, and once Marji gets a whiff of revolutionary fever she becomes a small disciple of Che Guevara and her uncle Anoushe (Francois Jerosme), a political dissident free after nine years of jail time and a hero to the prideful tot, who boasts to her friends about her relative. Once the Islamic Revolution gets underway, however, Marji and her liberal parents, Ebi (Simon Abkarian) and Tadji (Catherine Deneuve, Mastroianni's mother), are horrified by the developments, though too comfortable with life in their home country to think of diaspora, even as their friends and relatives flee for their lives. Unsurprisingly, Persepolis has attracted the wrath of the Iranian government, but more captivating than the film's depictions of cultural repression (a scene where Marji, out to buy a black market Iron Maiden album, is beset by weasel-bodied female Guardians of the Revolution because she wears a jean jacket and “punk” sneakers is but one well-handled example) are its more understated portraits of Iran's intellectual elite, at once removed from the proletariat it so pompously champions and sadly delusional about the real threat of the fanatic trajectory of the revolution. The animation of Persepolis's first section matches the insightful critiques of Iranian life from Marji's vantage point, with the cutesy block figures often making way for harsher, more expressionistic representations of the frightening climate—background graffiti of the Statue of Liberty with a death mask, young boys sent to the battlefields against Iraq exploding in jagged strokes of ink.
But then Marji's parents, out of fear for their child's increasingly rebellious attitude in school, send her off to Vienna for an enlightened education, and Persepolis takes a huge tumble. Part of Marji's time abroad involves reconciling her Iranian identity with the prejudices of Europeans and the strangeness of a vastly different culture, but mostly she goes through a series of vaguely and impersonally sketched episodes of young love—one boyfriend turns out to be gay, another cheats on her, and so on. The film gradually goes soap opera without, somehow, hitting a single truly emotional note. Marji ends up on the streets of Vienna, returns to Iran, drifts into a Prozac cloud, and unhappily marries in order to be able to show affection for her boyfriend in public. Such episodes feel rushed and perfunctorily narrated, and since all the film's political and social points have been made in the first half hour, there's little left to care about. Marji has long since ceased to be a compelling character because her adventures don't adapt to her growing awareness but, aside for one or two moments, continue to be expressed in a sentimental and highly clichéd terms (note to filmmakers: thou shalt not use "Eye of the Tiger" for any reason, even in jest). Worse than too earnest, too literal animation (isn't the beauty of this art form its ability to break free of temporal and spatial restraints?) is the attempt by too earnest, too literal animation to compensate for such tendencies by indulging in frivolity. The film seems stuck in a back and forth between melodrama and weak-willed irreverence, trying desperately to contrive the natural disorientation of Marji's childhood. I didn't want to lose empathy for the likeable protagonist, but the film's drastic drop in audience engagement ultimately gave me little choice. Satrapi has a voice, but Persepolis loses it along the way.