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Persepolis and the personal consequences of failure

Jeremy Cohan

Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008


Persepolis is a film that does not take itself seriously enough. This is not a comment on the unadorned animation style. Nor am I referring to the narrative of the protagonist: a story of a girl raised in a left-wing milieu that succeeds in arousing quite a bit of empathy in the audience. It is the film’s treatment of depoliticization as a fait accompli and its persistent retreat to the safety of the personal that make it a fascinating symptom of politics today. Read politically, Persepolis is a trenchant, if unreflective, look into the fate of contemporary political life.

Co-directed by the creator of the graphic novel on which the film was based, Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis is a wonderful combination of autobiography and political history. Marjane grows up in Iran and, as a young girl, seems to have the “heart of a radical.” At first an innocent supporter of the Shah, little Marjane changes her tune after a lecture by her parents, left-wing intellectuals both and supporters of socialist revolution. The film tarries in the excitement of the revolutionary moment for a good while and introduces us to Marjane’s grandmother, whose husband was a notorious communist, and her uncle, who had been jailed for 13 years under the Shah and released at this moment of change. The Iranian intellectuals are thrilled by a sense of the emancipatory possibilities of the Iranian Revolution, and as spectators we experience this excitement through the mind of the young girl, whose active imagination shapes the film stylistically.

As the revolution goes on, the film is forthright and quite affective in facing the intense sense of disappointment that arises among this group when the Revolution brings not emancipation, but perhaps worse enslavement. This is brought home in a number of ways: the constant atmosphere of fear created by bombs dropping from Iraq on one side and “morality police” on the other; the increased idiocy of the propagandistic school lessons Marjane receives; and the demand by the revolutionary authorities that women be veiled—an obligation so frustrating to the female protagonists of the film that whenever they can, they doff their headgear with satisfaction. Perhaps the most powerful is the final execution of Marjane’s uncle, a communist who held out hope for the ability of the people to seize control of their destinies until the very end.

What does one do after one has renounced “the future”? What happens when emancipation becomes impossible? One drifts alone through history; one faces the anomie and depoliticization that marks the rest of the film. Marjane begins listening to banned music such as punk rock in school and then travels to Vienna and joins a young nihilist crowd. She finds this all trifling (at one point she yells at the nihilists that her uncle actually died for something real). She goes in and out of several love affairs, but cannot be satisfied with running to Europe. So she returns to Iran—to face depression, a bad marriage, and a generally self-absorbed life. When Marjane sics a policeman on an innocent as a joke, her grandmother remonstrates her in the name of her ancestors. Yet at the close of the film the grandmother has died, silencing the last voice that may still have believed in that radical future beyond a half-hearted compromise with the rotten present.

The loss of the sense of possibility that occurs after the hopes of the Revolution have been dashed is felt deeply on all levels of the film. The story slackens; the episodes become more interchangeable. The heroine seems to find herself more and more “pushed” in given directions—as if the failure of a revolutionary moment had condemned those with the highest hope for it to a downward spiral of neurosis. One can read Persepolis as a coming-of-age tale, wherein Marjane learns to temper the “revolutionary” enthusiasm of childhood and the “nihilistic” selfishness of adolescence with the “quietly resigned” wisdom of adulthood. Yet this reading treats the politics of the film as mere background. The great interest of the film lies in how it can relate failed moments of political possibility and a certain kind of subjectivity—Marjane becomes horribly banalized by the end of political hope.

Now, I began this review with the claim that Persepolis does not take itself seriously enough. What Persepolis lacks is an awareness of how well it shows, by its changes in personal and aesthetic registers, the way in which Marjane’s possibilities as a person are denuded by the lost hope of political change. This may ultimately be due to the lack of any significant narration—the “present-day Marjane’s” reflections are too much bound up in this failure to offer us an outside-point on which we can stand and survey the destruction wrought on her person. It is too easy to see the film as no more than a touching story about growing up under oppression and about one person’s life and increasing acceptance of how much she can “actually” accomplish. The movie lends itself to sentimentalism because of the naïve reverence for Marjane and her family that its first-person perspective encourages.

Yet the film deserves to be read more symptomatically. Marjane concretizes the “post-political” malaise of the person who cannot come to terms with political failure and uses self-absorption as an escape-route from facing this failure. She is the perfect child of the 80s and 90s. Persepolis manages to effectively traverse a moment of political possibility and the sorrier and sorrier state of its subject before, during, and after that moment and its failure. The film offers the Left a mirror to itself and the sources of its own immobility—its inability to admit that it failed. It is up to us to critique what this mirror shows. |P