Thursday, September 10, 2009

Persepolis (2007) A Film by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud

The comic book to film adaption has seen distinct results: there are the slew of superhero films such as Spiderman, The Hulk, and Watchmen, and then there are decidedly smaller, more introspective comedy-dramas, like the excellent episodic Harvey Pekar film, American Splendor, and now Marjane Satrapi and her artist collaborator Vincent Parronaud's Persepolis. The latter arena roots its milieu in everyday life as it attempts to extract comedy and pathos out of autobiographical tales of normal existence, whereas the former shoots for a fantastical reality infused the grandiloquence of a myth. While Persepolis does hold true to these trappings, it also expands broader than the quotidian distress of American Splendor into something more politically minded and socially relevant. It is a documenting of the trials and tribulations of a feisty Iranian woman as she grows up through a turbulent era in Iran - the oppressive Shah regime, the subsequent hint at democracy, and eventually a turn towards a strict Fundamentalist system. The young woman is indeed Marjane Satrapi herself, and the story takes on an almost confessional bent at times with Satrapi utilizing the autobiographical mode to its fullest extent, revealing her successes and failures with a copious blend of self-mocking and self-aggrandizement.

Considering the film's sources are the two comic books Satrapi authored of the same name (Persepolis and Persepolis 2), it's a given that the film should adopt a fragmented, rapid-fire storytelling technique, as if each scene was plugged from the individual frames in the comic book. Satrapi's character - voiced by Gabrielle Lopes Benites as a child and Chiara Mastroianni (the daughter of Marcello) as a teen and young woman - guides the film via narration, and it takes the many excursions that her words entail, into dream, flashback, and fantasies. Sometimes the scenes are so anecdotal that they undermine the flow of the narrative as a whole, which favors shifting thoughts rather than wholly logical progression. Nonetheless, they are stitched together by Satrapi's consistent humanity. Her world-view, which takes on a hint of gentle rebellion, has been shaped by her intellectually independent role models: her loving mother and father, an Uncle Anoush she had never met until he was imprisoned, and her idiosyncratic grandmother, whom she lives with for a time. The first section of the film details Marjane's youth, which is probably the most dramatically diffuse. Like the bubbly child she is, and the Nike-wearing, punk-rocking adolescent she becomes, the narrative clamors with vibrancy but loses out on coherence.

As Persepolis progresses and Marji is sent away by her parents in the interest of acquiring a better education, it also gains more assurance on the level of fluidity. She is confronted with the decadent culture and introduced to such previously unspoken taboos as smoking and alcohol, thrasher punk, and spontaneous dating. Each of her flings, from flimsily characterized artistic weirdos to booger-eating grotesques, is presented in a slapdash manner, emphasizing the roller-coaster ride of emotions experienced in Marjane due to the displacement from her beloved but flawed homeland and her caring family. It all ultimately leads to depression, which she unsatisfactorily discovers when her doctor tells her after she vomits up a black liquid from too many cigarettes. Marjane vows to straighten up and heads back to her native land as a way of doing so, only to find it is in a much more dire position than she could have ever imagined. This is where the film is most successful, in its juxtaposition of the childlike view of the revolution in her early days to the slap of reality she gets upon returning as a fully formed woman. Perhaps this is why Marjane's youth is told with an almost naive structure. It allows for the later sequences to mold to that of a matured woman's mind.

Enough talk about narrative, for Persepolis' most recognizable achievement is its beautiful visual language. Satrapi's comic books are known for their minimalistic line-drawing, which admittedly gains infinitely more expressiveness in its commitment to animation. The aesthetic fascinatingly combines this simplistic method for the faces and bodies of people with textured shading on objects in the background. Such a technique allows the bodies to stand out even when they are reduced to white eyes on black shadow figures, as if animal eyes peering out from behind bushes. The backgrounds are wonderfully descriptive and often times willfully expressionistic; for instance, a wall frequently becomes a blob of black with a patch of white in the middle, recalling the eerie domestic interiors of David Lynch's Eraserhead. Contrasting this straightforwardness are the instances of cartoonish dreams that Marjane has. In her youth, a majestic God cushioned between one-dimensional cloud formations guides her frustration during sleep, and she even travels the seven seas. Satrapi and Parronaud draw these images with great innocence and detail, giving them the look of paper thin layers that move in and out to convey depth.

This artistic acumen is ultimately able to punctuate the otherwise rambling narrative with poignancy. The images are also coupled perfectly with a rustic soundtrack tinged with French classical and jazzy pop ditties, or even in one bizarre, out-of-step instance, Marjane's rendition of "Eye of the Tiger" during her self-realization. Satrapi and Paronnaud evidently have a skill with the pairing of image and music alone to create emotion, proved when the characters walk through the Iranian streets and a lovely snow falls. Persepolis is able to sidestep the conventional coming-of-age drama where some particular contrivance elevates the character to maturity, instead achieving the feeling of an accumulation of life events that help to shape a person, particularly a person who has been through political and social upheaval but has never lost her values.

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