Persepolis may be a landmark: the first ever feature-length animated autobiography. Based on graphic novels by Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi, this Franco-American production (which Satrapi co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud) is international in scope, often enjoyable and perhaps even “truthful,” but limited in a way that is so fundamental that I could not assent to the “magic” that other reviewers have found in watching it.
The story spans something like fifteen years, beginning in 1978 when Satrapi would have been eight or nine. The autobiographer is voiced by Gabrielle Lopes as a child and, when older, by Chiara Mastroianni—daughter of Marcello and Catherine Deneuve, who also plays her mother in the movie. She’s the precocious scion of a left-leaning, bourgeois family in Tehran at a time of turmoil. When the dictatorial shah is overthrown, a nascent Westernized democracy is anticipated; instead, Iran drifts into a situation reminiscent of those famous lyrics by The Who: “Meet the new boss/ Same as the old boss.”
Satrapi, an independent-minded teenager in a repressive, sexist culture, feels squashed and leaves the country for a Francophone lycée in Vienna. She falls in with a crowd of nihilist, anarchist hipsters; but they are only interested in Satrapi’s exoticism, and their intellectualism is depicted as baseless because they’ve never suffered.
Satrapi has and continues to. She ends up a vagrant with tuberculosis and decides to return home where religious oppression is back in swing and everyone acts as vapidly as the Europeans. She gets hitched to a man she loves (because it is the only acceptable way for them to publicly show affection to one another under the new regime), but only one scene later, her new hubby is watching Terminator on television and their relationship has fallen apart. Eventually, she returns to Europe—this time France—but, perhaps since this is a French film (and France Satrapi’s adopted home), that nation is spared criticism; her time there merely serves the movie as a teaser and a coda (both confined to the airport, no less).
Persepolis is, essentially, an outsider story; like so many artistic types—so many “misunderstood kids”—Satrapi can’t seem to fit in anywhere. But due to the nature of her eventful life, her tale balloons into an international put-down. Not only are her friends flimsy, but all the Viennese: her lovers, the nuns, and even the batty professor who takes her in. This film takes on the duplicitous philosophy that we as Westerners take for granted our enlightened mores and civil liberties, and yet are shallow and unable to relate to those who have suffered violent social and political upheaval. Our pat on the back turns into a jab at the eye.
Because of this, well-meaning Westerners may see the movie and feel a misguided sense of inferiority. One gets the feeling that Satrapi’s strife is what has made her unable to relate to those around her; she can’t befriend anybody because she’s on a higher plane. She tries to blend in, but her inability to do so is treated like a foregone conclusion. Despite her charming wit, she seems to still carry a Debbie Downer outlook like a ball and chain; her life’s been hard, yes, but of course it’ll be difficult for her to make genuine friends if she keeps using that as a wedge between her and everyone else.