Discover more from Movie Night
Fraying at the seams
“I remember, I led a peaceful, uneventful life as a little girl. I loved fries with ketchup, Bruce Lee was my hero, I wore Adidas sneakers, and had two obsessions: shaving my legs one day, and being the last prophet in the galaxy…”
And so begins, in Tehran in 1978, Persepolis (2007), an animated film from French-Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical novel of the same name. Young Marjane runs underfoot of adults at a house party (disco music cranked up) while people drink and have a good time. We hear bits and pieces of standard good cheer from party-goers, and then the frame arrives on a guest who seems to be under a pall. She describes being allowed to see someone briefly, but he’s still incarcerated. A man consoles her: “Don’t worry, this regime will collapse sooner or later.”
It tells us something about the timbre of the film that the first mention of conflict (in a story sense, not a literal historical sense) is accompanied by the belief that it will bring about resolution. Typically conflict is something avoided at all costs. Anyone who has ever watched a film knows that plans characters make in the first act don’t usually pan out.
Persepolis is a lovely, epic, and tragic film of a family’s history, animated in a whimsical style that hews closely to the graphic novel. Characters are drawn in stark black and white, and backgrounds and landscapes are softer, with much greater gradation between black and white. Color is introduced occasionally to highlight a contrast between the past and present.
Watching Persepolis can, at times, feel like reading from a diary: some scenes are long and serve to situate us in history as Iran goes through painful changes, and others are short sketches that give us context into the bizarre society created by the wake of the Shah’s deposal. In one such scene (pictured above), Marjane cruises through a park, occasionally being offered the opportunity to buy cultural contraband from strangers looking to make a buck. They whisper discretely “Estivie Wonder” and “Jichael Mackson” and “Iron Maiden.” A less literally rendered tableau shows us human figures retreating under the earth as sirens wail and bombs fall, their silhouettes illuminated by terrifying flashes of light.
The literal focus of characters shifts based on, I believe, the sharpness of Satrapi’s memory. Some scenes are as simple as silhouettes moving on a background. They’re more effective despite their vagueness. There are some things in life we feel we remember despite not having any experience with the events. These cultural memories are baked into our psyche by the people around us when we grow up: for example, someone born in 2000 having memories of 9/11. Persepolis captures these types of memories beautifully.
Also of note, the performances: Danielle Darrieux gives a moving performance as Marjane’s grandmother, complete with parting words of advice that would make Polonius proud. The legendary Catherine Deneuve gracefully portrays Marjane’s mother. Lastly, Chiara Mastroianni is perfect as Marjane. True film lovers will recognize the last name: she is the daughter of the also legendary Marcello Mastroianni.
Watching or reading a memoir is always interesting: so much life crammed into so little space. Even several thousand pages of the best-written book capture only trace amounts of life’s potential. What would you include in your memoir? Persepolis may not surpass the greatest of novels, but it does honestly capture some of life’s little frayed seams. Midway through the story, Marjane’s friends from her time in Vienna fly away, literally, animated as little birds. They move away, and she never hears from them again.
Written and Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parannaud
French, English, and Farsi