It’s hard admitting your mistakes, hmm?
— Grandmother (Danielle Darrieux)
Stuck at Orly Airport, Marjane (Chiara Mastroianni) sits and smokes. Unable to travel from Paris to Tehran due to a passport snafu, she moves instead through time, back into her childhood in 1978. Here the animated Persepolis, based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novels, slips from color to black and white, the style inspired by German Expressionism, an allusion that makes contextual as well as aesthetic sense. “I loved fries with ketchup,” Marjane recalls of her secular childhood security. “Bruce Lee was my hero. I wore Adidas sneakers.”
Energetic and self-confident, little Marjane (voiced as a child by Gabrielle Lopes) imagines herself a future prophet and dashes among the adults at a party, practicing her karate kicks moves while they balance drinks and discuss current affairs. These would include reports on friends who’ve been imprisoned as well as long-term worries about fundamentalist resurgence (“The regime will collapse sooner or later,” mutters her father, Ebi [Simon Abkarian]). When Marjane proclaims to her parents (via a lesson instilled by her teacher) that the Shah was chosen by God, dad sets her straight. As he narrates, the film provides antic illustration of the Shah’s oil dealing with the West, his modernization of Iran and his son’s subsequent “idiotic” turns to conservatism. The history, personal and political, is delivered with a sharp mix of comedy and tragedy. As Marjane lies in bed, the “camera” hovering overhead, she defiantly declares herself a communist after learning her grandfather was jailed for same; each evening, she watches her father smoke cigarettes furiously, pondering questions the child can only guess at.
Condemning the Islamic Revolution, the film makes complexities accessible for a broad (Western) audience. The televised “march to democracy” following the Shah’s fall in 1979 results in the release of prisoners, including one who describes his experience with torturers trained by the CIA. He puffs his cigarette and sighs: “They certainly knew their stuff.” Listening with her mother Tadji (Catherine Deneuve), Marjane’s eyes grow wide and she sinks her head into her arms; then she puts the abstractions to use playing with her friends the next morning: the loser of their game will be “tortured to death.” Accompanied by light-touch music (part comic, part ironic), the scene results in another lesson for Marjane, this one delivered by her mother, furious to see her casual absorption of cruelty as a means of interaction. The point is clear: children model themselves on adults, even (perhaps especially) when the consequences are unimaginable. Satrapi’s animation conveys the dilemma. Angular, stylized, and charming, it never reduces complexities, but translates them into comprehensible images, though both perspective and narrative turn increasingly elaborate as Marjane grows up and Iran grows more repressive.
This process takes time and metaphor. The film takes on an episodic structure, as Marjane begins reporting on every event and change of feeling, most shaped by political, cultural, and military forces made concrete in cartoon form. (The film smartly includes repeated TV images, especially news anchors announcing changes in policy and threats to the community, at once parodying the “epic saga” structure and making good use of it to condense plot.) At first, the new regime promises democracy: “Nothing will stop the people,” asserts her Uncle Anouche (François Jerosme), even as you know that for a time, anyway, they will indeed be stopped. Soon he’s imprisoned and when Marjane visits him in his cell, he dances delicately with his frightened young niece, the dark iris effect on their sad embrace suggesting a shared sense of isolation and dread.
Deeply influenced by her sage grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), Marjane resists expectations and instead seeks her own path, sometimes butting heads with her parents (who want to protect her) and varying embodiments of the Islamic state (who wants to contain her). Watching Godzilla, her grandmother complains that the victims are silly for freezing and screaming histrionically, apparently accepting their fates as reptile chow; Marjane looks around her to see her devastated city looking much like the Tokyo of the film, horrified by the loss and emptiness, and especially the lack of faith that any substantive change is on the horizon.
Instructed to wear the veil (it “signifies freedom,” their teacher says, as “a woman who shows herself will burn in hell”) and curtail her troublesome exuberance, adolescent Marjane fights back, her taste for Abba giving way to more pointed affections for punk and Pink Floyd. Worried at official concerning her outspokenness, Marjane’s parents send her to a Lycée Français in Vienna, where her life turns again, from delight at fully stocked supermarket shelves to a crush on a faux intellectual who introduces her to “false nihilisms.” Here Marjane’s exuberance finds form in dancing, drinking, and sex, as she seeks to “find her place,” an identity and community that won’t be decimated by the next set of uniformed thugs coming round the corner.
Unsurprisingly, Marjane’s philosophically inclined college crew isn’t the final point in her search. As she makes her way from one disappointing relationship to another, her voiceover remains self-deprecating and wry, keenly observant and nostalgic for the Iran she once believed in. Her musings throughout the film are interrupted on occasion by conversations with a couple of large bearded white guys, namely, the God and Karl Marx of her well-read imagination. These interludes provide the movie with a chance to catch up on broad themes — the meaning of life, the morality of resistance — but they also allow Marjane to grapple with her own sense of smallness, not to mention her outrage at the extraordinarily poor and shortsighted decisions made by the very flesh-and-blood men around her (these include her cheating college beau and her eventual husband back in Tehran).
Appalled by all the self-regarding monumentalism, Marjane is comforted by her grandmother, who embodies a no-nonsense calm and material stability (each morning, she explains, she puts jasmine petals in her bra, a scent her granddaughter comes to associate with refuge). At once traditional and forward-looking, gracious and intuitive, her grandmother provides the eternal child Marjane with a model of generosity and good sense amid the tumult of life.