Marjane Satrapi’s biggest decision regarding her film was a foregone conclusion before she even started work on it. Since Persepolis was born out of Satrapi’s four graphic novels of the same name, using any medium other than animation wasn’t even considered—and it’s the animation that makes the film both relatable and exceptional.
Persepolis is a typical coming-of-age story in an atypical setting. The subject is Satrapi’s main character—herself, voiced by Gabrielle Lopes as a child and Chiara Mastroianni as an adult. She grows up in a progressive household in an Iran that witnesses the fall of the Shah, the Iranian Revolution, and the Iran-Iraq War. She’s exiled to Vienna, returns, and eventually immigrates to France.
The animation is immediately able to break down any barriers in language and experience that a viewer who has never suffered exile may feel. Satrapi says as much herself in The Hidden Face of Persepolis, one of two behind-the-scenes featurettes included in the DVD (along with a Q&A from Cannes and commentary on selected scenes, so you get Satrapi’s views of every aspect of filmmaking). She notes that if she had chosen to use real actors, the film would immediately be pigeonholed as an “ethnic” film. Animation has an abstract quality, she says, that keeps it from being shrugged off as something too exotic. Choosing to animate the film allows the characters to become more human than if she had used human actors.
The animation also builds breathing room into the film, balancing the heavy material with bouts of whimsy. In one sequence, the character of Marjane falls into a depression. It’s depicted as an airy dream world, where pills of different shapes and sizes float around like flower petals. In another scene, a character is “corrected” once it’s discovered he’s a jerk; whereas he was once portrayed as normal and even handsome, when his betrayal is discovered, her recollection of him depicts him with buck teeth, crazy eyes, a huge nose, and unbecoming habits.
The flat, thick characters are drawn in black-and-white that’s neither overly detailed nor too stark. Many have pointed out that this style came not only from comic books—which Satrapi says she was unfamiliar with before she drew her own—but from the German expressionist films of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.
Yet Satrapi’s film, which she co-directed with comics author Vincent Paronnaud, is much warmer than Murnau’s and Lang’s movies. Though set against a backdrop where an entire country goes through a radical transformation, Persepolis is more about the relationships between characters—most notably those between Marjane and her mother (Danielle Darrieux) and grandmother (Catherine Deneuve)—than about any particular plot, which is fractured and episodic. These are loving and supportive relationships that pull Marjane through her struggles with loneliness and isolation, which turn out to be more powerful and more dangerous to her than the Shah’s regime.
Yet if the almost-perfect transition from graphic novel to animated movie allowed these characters to be the best and most attainable versions of themselves, it also accounts for the film’s biggest flaw. Though the visual element of the film is handled in a very cinematic way, the story itself is not. Like a comic book, we get a sketch outline of Marjane’s life. There is a series of wonderfully affecting moments, but eventually it feels like getting the bullet points of a four-part graphic-novel series cut to fit in one feature film.
The vignettes progress one-after-another until eventually they stop, and it’s not immediately clear, apart from time constraints, why the film ends where it does. It’s a problem that plagues all comic-book films, even of the superhero variety: How do you satisfyingly end a story that’s meant to string out serially without slapping on a Hollywood-style happy ending? Perhaps Marjane’s journey has only just begun.
Indeed, a Hollywood-style ending, a tidy conclusion, would feel disingenuous to this film. Notably, regarding a Hollywood affectation, the film curiously has an English language version included on the DVD with voicework by Gena Rowlands, Sean Penn, and even Iggy Pop. One filmmaker called the English language edition a second movie that arose from the same source material, since he had grown to know every second of the French performances by heart. Indeed, I recommend you watch this in its original French with subtitles, if needed.