Animated adult films are nothing new, nor are full-length features based on graphic novels. But the one's I've seen usually have an edginess about them, a rawness, or a testosterone-fueled sensibility. That's why I was unprepared to feel an entirely different set of emotions when I watched "Persepolis," the animated film co-directed by graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi. The film is based on two graphic novels Satrapi wrote about her adolescence and young adulthood in Iran and Vienna. As much as it is a poignant coming-of-age story that packs an emotional punch, it's also an intellectual, hard-hitting political statement--something made evident by the protest Iran filed with France, who had chosen "Persepolis" as its official Academy Awards submission for Best Foreign Language Film.
Satrapi grew up in a communist household during the reign of the Shah, and her graphic novels (and this film) begin with a depiction of her liberal and politically-minded family and the ways in which they negotiate life under the tyrannical Shah. We see how they embrace revolution, thinking it will lead more freedoms, then watch them recoil in disbelief as the new fundamentalist government of the Ayatollah Khomeini becomes even more oppressive. And things worsen when war breaks out between Iraq and Iran.
Using a style of animation that preserves the two-dimensionality of the comics, Satrapi and co-writer/director Vincent Paronnaud create a visual world that reinforces the emotional content. As we listen to a narrative about how people who would not affirm loyalty to the government were executed, it's somehow more powerful to see men and women shot and falling to the ground who are drawn so simply they look like paper dolls. On one of the scene-specific commentaries, Satrapi explains that she uses color in the beginning, middle, and end as physical breaks. As we see the character Marjane in a French airport, we move from color to a black-and-white flashback of her childhood in Tehran. We meet Marjane's liberal mother (voiced by Catherine Deneuve), Marjane's politicized father (Simon Abkarian), and the even more overtly revolutionary Uncle Anouche (Francois Jerosme). And of course there's Marjane herself, voiced by Gabrielle Lopes (as a child) and Chiara Mastroianni (as an adult).
As these characters speak, and as they talk about politics and their hopes for a true revolution, you begin to realize how much better the scenes work in animation than if they were flesh-and-blood characters saying the same lines. Drawings and animation impart an innocent storybook quality that gives wings to truth and makes us accepting of a scenic shorthand that would seem underdeveloped in live-action. And yet, we get to know the cartoon Marjane so well and she seems so complex and three-dimensional that "Persepolis" becomes a rich and satisfying emotional journey spanning 16 years of this young woman's life. The picaresque structure allows us to appreciate how one character comes to terms with so much pain, repression, and confusing "liberation."
"Persepolis" is full of ideas and contrasts, and we see constant juxtapositions that make us appreciate the moral conflicts between religion and dogma, between spouting Marxist platitudes or living them, between East and West, and between love and what passes for love. While you might expect the sections set in Iran to be the most powerful and those set in Vienna--where a 14-year-old Marjane was sent by her parents to escape the new tyranny--those European sections are just as lively because of Satrapi's wry, embedded commentaries on love and life in the Western world. When Marjane finally decides to return to Iran for her college years, viewers have a full sense of why she needs to be back in Iran--though, as with Marjane herself, it might be hard to articulate. But the one constant (and the thing that places her most in danger) is the boldness of this little girl, who comes up with a list of rules for her own pretend government, and as a young woman told by police not to run because "when you run, your behind moves in an obscene way," she shouts, "SO DON'T LOOK AT MY ASS!" At moments like these, this graphics novel heroine seems like a superhero in a head scarf.
For all the emotion that "Persepolis" packs, there is also no shortage of humor. In one section, Marjane's parents return from the streets, where they just witnessed a boy under 20 shot by police. "What is this country coming to?" they ask, rhetorically. Grandma (Danielle Darrieux) quickly offers, "It's a shithole." Even Marjane's illustrated discussions with God are funny. Such scenes show that a sense of humor can also be a revolutionary response, but they also heighten the contrast between the light moments and the poignant ones, as when, before he is to be executed, Uncle Anouche is allowed one visitor and asks for a very small Marjane to converse with, dance with, and underscore how important the family history is for her to pass on. Moments of humor stand in stark contrast to scenes like one in which we're told that it is illegal to kill a virgin under the new government, but that doesn't mean young women are safe. We hear a story about how a guard married a woman the government wanted eradicated, took her virginity, and then they killed her. There are a number of case histories that work their way into Marjane's story, each of them equally hard to process. And the animation really highlights the powerful scenes. In one of them, we watch young men flee police who come to bust their alcohol, music, and mixed-sex party. As they attempt an impossibly wide jump from one rooftop to another and the last man approaches it timidly, we see him fall just short, though the building is kept off-frame, and the camera pans upward to capture a crescent moon.
Satrapi and Paronnaud have done a remarkable job bringing "Persepolis" to life while juggling all of the complex elements and emotions that upbraid the narrative. The animation is distinctive--what Satrapi calls "stylized realism"--the voice actors perfectly matched, and the pacing just enough to keep things moving, while affording viewers pauses for reflection. It's a wonderful, hand-drawn film, which is why it won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was named Best Animated Feature by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the New York Online Film Critics.
Satrapi said she's just as pleased with the dubbed English version, which utilizes the additional voice talents of Sean Penn (Marjane's father), Gena Rowlands (Marjane's grandma), Iggy Pop (Uncle Anouche), and Amethyste Frezeignac (young Marjane).
"Persepolis" looks great in 1080p, a nice clean, crisp transfer that offers the right black levels to make the black-and-white sections (which constitute the bulk of the movie) look rich and detailed. When color comes into the frames, it's a bold statement, with fully saturated colors, the reds especially. It doesn't have quite the high-gloss sheen of digital animation, but it's a very nice looking picture.
The default audio is French Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and the sound is clear and vibrant. As for the mixing, there are times when you'll be startled by a sound that comes out of the rear or one of the front main speakers. More than a few times when I watched this film I jumped or else wondered whether the sound was on the TV or if it was in or outside my house. In other words, all the channels get quite a workout. Some may consider the jarring, isolated sounds a positive, but I found myself thinking (wishing?) they could have been a little less intrusive.
Good news for dub fans, though: the English soundtrack is also Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and it's just as solid, overall. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
For my money, the best of the bonus features is the panel Q&A at Cannes, but then again I'm a sucker for interviews. It's interesting to see how candid or careful the respondents are, and what slips might pop out. I like to see all the voice talents, too, and hear how the directors and producers feel, while all of them sit in front of the press and listen to the responses. But two short (under 20 minute) bonus features are also decent. "The Hidden Side of Persepolis" shows the co-directors teasing each other, while what's revealed is the magnitude of both personalities and how much of a negotiation this film must have been for each. There are behind-the-scenes clips and interviews in this brief feature, as there are in "Behind the Scenes of Persepolis," which brings in the voice talents, including the American cast. There are animated scene comparisons for "After the Bombing," "Depression," "The Wedding," and "Animation Test," and three scene-specific commentaries that float independently. Satrapi talks about the opening sequence, actress Mastroianni talks about the "Eye of the Tiger" scene, and Paronnaud offers his take on "The Vienna Scene." But my favorite comment came from Satrapi, who says on one feature how she thought directing meant she'd come in two days a week, shout at everybody, "they would do the work, and I would become rich and famous." There's an interesting tell-it-like-it-is candor here that's all the more fun after you've watched "Persepolis."
"Persepolis" will outrage you as much as it delights, and amuse you almost as much as it tugs at your heart. It's an animated film that covers as much epic and emotional ground as "Doctor Zhivago." And in the span of just 95 minutes, that's quite a feat.