Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 26, 2017 4:26 pm 
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Revenge tragedy

Most (western) reviewers who've written about this film have seen four of the director's other ones, though there are two others in his filmography, Danse dans la poussière/Dance in the Dust (2003) and Beautiful City (2004). We all saw A Separation (NYFF 2011), which made Farhadi internationally famous. Then we were treated to his next one, shot in France with dialogue mostly in French, Le passé/The Past (2013). Afterward came delayed US re-releases in 2015 of his 2009 About Elly, and early this year, going further backward, of his 2006 Fireworks Wednesday. I'm glad to have seen these two earlier films, because personally I was put off by the way A Separation seemed to emphasize some of the worst aspects of Iranian culture (the quarrelsomeness, the blaming, the lying); and Le passé simply felt like a more claustrophobic and stifled foreign version of the same thing, not quite as good as the raves said, finely crafted, complex, but a bit tedious as well. About Elly, with its L'Avventura-like tale of a vanished girl at a seaside resort, has great ensemble work, and Fireworks Wednesday has a lovely flow to it. They are both pleasanter and lighter, and show Farhadi's gift for orchestration and movement and wrangling groups of people in a way that's both virtuosic and pleasing.

Some are saying it's more of the same thing as the first two we saw, but The Salesman, though having in common the very generic theme of something going wrong in a family, still feels quite different, especially at the end. To begin with it's complicated by a combination of several different milieux: a home - which keeps changing, and is terribly compromised on doing so; a classroom, because the husband, Emad (Shahab Hosseini, also featured in About Elly and A Separation), is a high school literature teacher with a class full of adolescent boys; and a theater, because he and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti, who starred in Beautiful City and About Elly) are amateur actors cast as Willy Loman and his wife in a Farsi production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

The action begins with a sudden emergency. Due to construction nearby, the apartment building Emad and Rana have just moved to has to be immediately evacuated because it is judged about to collapse. Windows crack scarily, and so do walls. Actually the building does not collapse, but it's unsafe and the couple and everyone else must move out at once.

The chaos in the building exemplifies Farhadi's skill at directing groups of people running around. But I found it felt very artificial, like action on a theatrical stage - and we know Farhadi started out in theater. This bad impression is immediately offset, however, by a scene of Emad teaching his class. I was struck at how real and lively the geeky boys seemed, many of them in glasses - a contrast to the impossibly glamorous youths in posh Paris lyçées shot by Christophe Honoré say, or recently by Mia Hansen-Love. Farhadi's good with kids too, and did some shrewd casting here with the boys.

Their theater colleague Babak (Babak Karimi, another Farhadi regular) proposes Rana and Emad move into an apartment he has which has just been vacated, and they take it at once. This is where the real trouble begins. The previous occupant has refused to come and get a roomful of possessions, which they put outside, and then have to move when it rains. It turns out she "had many acquaintances" - in other words, she was a prostitute. (There is a parallel character in Death of a Salesman). Then, Rana buzzes open the downstairs entrance, thinking it's Emad, and gets in the shower leaving the apartment door open. She is assaulted in the shower by an intruder, leading to a head injury requiring X-rays. But what's worse, this event, whose details are left vague (was she raped? attacked? or did she just fall?), leaves Rana badly traumatized.

At first she can't function and a performance of the play is cancelled. Then she breaks down during a performance because a man in the audience, she says, looked at her like the stranger who entered the bathroom.

Emad is impatient with Rana about all this, not really understanding, and then it becomes clear that he's not only angry at her for somehow allowing this to happen and not being able to put it behind her but also because his manhood is lessened for not protecting her. Finding the perpetrator and exacting revenge now become his goals. The key to finding the man is that he left behind a pickup truck. Later it disappears, but Emad is able to find it.

Farhadi continues his method of almost plodding, neorealist detail, particularly in the way he describes the vicissitudes the couple's relationship goes through. But while the importance of the domestic picture, the classroom, and the theater keeps being balanced, the story turns into a kind of whodunit and a grimly realistic and incredibly tense revenge tale with a disturbing final twist.

At Cannes Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian invented the conceit of "The Haneke/Antonioni Shock Event," which he suggested as a new "genre of world cinema" exemplified by this film as well as Cristian Mungui’s Graduation and ("to a lesser extent") the Dardennes' The Unknown Girl (those two both included in the NYFF). There is something of Haneke in the unease that pervades the homes Rana and Emad are forced to occupy and the scary, life-changing moment of violence - its mysterious menace is reminiscent of Haneke's Code Unknown. Evan the brutality and violence of Farhadi's ending may have something of Haneke.

Bradshaw calls Farhadi's plot "contrived" but I don't really think so. Emad's finding of the perpetrator may have something of contrivance about it, and to some the finale seems to feel melodramatic, or heavy-handed and overlong. But I simply forgot all that in the power of the final sequence, especially in the way Emad appears to be embarrassing himself and digging a hole from which his marriage may never safely emerge. Returning to the couple playing the tragic finale of Death of a Salesman is memorable, Farhadi making his theatricality work for him in a haunting and thought-provoking way.

An earlier scene memorably foreshadows Emad's dangerous path to come. He shows his boys a movie and dozes off - neither he nor Rana can sleep after her trauma - and when the boys take comic selfies of themselves with their sleeping teacher and he awakes, he becomes furious and tries to humiliate one of the boys. It's funny classroom horseplay that hints at the grim destructive path Emad is headed toward. No one makes movies like Farhadi and they're fascinatingly civilized, sophisticated stuff. This one has an edge the others don't; I don't think it's treading water at all.

Le Client/The Salesman/فروشنده (farushande),125 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2016, where Shahab Hosseini won the Best Actor award. Later nominated for the Best Foreign Oscar. The film also showed at 22 other international festivals including Munich, Toronto, Mill Valley, Vancouver and London (not New Yok). French theatrical release 9 Nov. 2016, where the critical response was relatively tepid (AlloCiné press rating 3.4). US theatrical release 27 Jan. 2017, in New York at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas 6, in Los Angeles at Laemle Royal. San Francisco area release 3 Feb. Despite early comments that it was not up the the director's best, the English-language critics' ratings have overall been very positive, judging by Metacritic's score: 83%.


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