DIR/WRI: Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud • PRO: Xavier Rigault, Marc-Antoine Robert • DOP: Darius Khondji • ED: Stéphane Roche • DES: Marisa Musy • CAST: (Voice) Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Iggy Pop, Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands
From the popular graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis is a tour de force, an animated coming-of-age tale about a young girl growing up in Iran, based on its author Marjane Satrapi’s life story. Framing the narrative are transitional airport scenes set in the present day, which ultimately carry a strong symbolism of being uprooted, and constantly in limbo, whether Marji (as she’s affectionately known) opts to return to Iran or stay as an exile in the West.
The main story begins with Marji as a small, feisty child, obsessed with Bruce Lee and wide-eyed about the political persecution of her uncles. As the political situation escalates into a full-blown revolution, with the toppling of the Shah, for a brief period it looks like the dawn of a new, democratic era. Khomeini, however, is installed, and the country is plunged into a religious, orthodox rule. Marji’s parents send her abroad to Vienna to be safe. After a shaky start, Marji makes friends with a group of metal-rocking, nihilistic French teens, but she never shakes the sense of her otherness. Blossoming into a young woman, she experiences her first heartbreak, with near fatal consequences, and ends up back in Iran, but to her dismay, she finds she is again the outsider. Especially hard to accustom to are the new, oppressive codes of dress and conduct imposed on women, and the still independent-minded Marji knows she can’t survive in such an environment.
The visuals stay true to the graphic novel’s style, with various influences readily apparent: the swirly, gothic renditions of trees and architecture have a Burtonesque feel; the adolescent transition is conveyed via a cubist sequence, and Picasso’s vision can also be felt in the Guernica black, white and grey tones. Munch’s ‘Scream’ finds a re-imagining in Marji’s own silent scream. The political complexity is conveyed in a very simplified but surprisingly to-the-point summary, and besides, Marji’s story, no matter how rooted in the political, is primarily a personal one.
The film’s greatest achievement is in conveying the pluck and heart of this headstrong heroine, and her loss of will to live is a tragic indictment of a regime that failed all of its people. The tone is very much in the tragi-comedic register – several heart-wrenching moments are mitigated by an exuberant, humane humour. Moments that stand out for their comic genius are Marji’s perusing of the black market for music tapes, with the suspicious-looking Arab men each barking out their respective bands; also funny is the life drawing class in Marji’s Teheran art school, where instead of a nude model, a girl dressed from head to foot in a burqa offers little in terms of anatomical training. Marji’s main source of solace is her Grandma, who is a mentor figure and partner in crime, whether it’s accompanying her to the cinema for the likes of Godzilla, or cheering her up about her impending divorce. And it is Grandma’s advice on keeping fresh jasmine flowers in your brassiere that echoes again at the end of the film, as we see Marji once again at a crossroads, missing her Grandma’s wise presence. There’s no tidy ending, with a happy-ever-after (how could there, given the present situation in Iran?), but Marji has come to certain realisations, and that’s a start. In that light, the ending is both fitting and realistic.