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Iranian director Marjane Satrapi is done with film

Iranian director Marjane Satrapi is done with film

There are many ways to irritate the Iranian artist-turned-director Marjane Satrapi. One would be to refer to her comic books, including the autobiographical “Persepolis”, which she adapted into an animated film, as “graphic novels”. (“People are so afraid to say the word ‘comic’. It makes you think of a grown man with pimples, a ponytail and a big belly.”) Another might be to bother her before lunch. She is not what you would call a morning person; she once said she wakes up as if bitten by 55 snakes. But the voice on the other end of the line this morning sounds chipper. “It’s almost noon here so you’re fine,” she says. “Here” is Paris, where she has lived for more than 20 years after growing up in Tehran and Vienna. “Also I have had my coffee ... so I don’t feel like killing anyone.” This throwaway remark takes on new meaning once you’ve seen Satrapi’s comic horror “The Voices”. It is almost unrecognisable as the work of the mind behind “Persepolis”. Set not in Iran but in the American midwest (though it was shot in Berlin), the film is both winsome and wildly gory. It also stars the sort of Hollywood actor — Ryan Reynolds — who has not previously appeared on Satrapi’s radar. He plays Jerry, a chirpy factory worker who lives with his pets and pines after a female colleague. So far, so cutesy. But then he accidentally kills the object of his affection and is egged on to commit further atrocities by his cat, Mr Whiskers, and a talking severed head in the fridge. If the material is offbeat, Satrapi’s approach is nothing short of ferocious. She has assembled a charismatic cast to play strong, distinctive female characters, so that even amid the cheerful slaughter we feel the loss when one of them perishes. Gemma Arterton is the first victim, with Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver (“Animal Kingdom”) and Ella Smith (Channel 4’s “Babylon”) all facing the chop. Add to that the fact that “The Voices” was made by a woman — let alone an Iranian who has survived war, persecution and the murder of friends and relatives, all of it documented in “Persepolis” with flair rather than despair — and it becomes clear what an unusual achievement this movie amounts to.Its trump card is Reynolds. “There was something prickly and scary in those big, dark eyes,” Satrapi says of her first meeting with the star. “At the same time he has this smile that makes you forgive him for anything. You almost want to take his hand with the knife in it and make him stab you too because you love him so much.” With that macabre remark she lets out a girlish laugh. “Then I found that if you cast him, he comes with five million ideas and you just have to take the ones that work.” Among those five million ideas was the notion of giving Mr Whiskers (for whom Reynolds provides the voice, along with Bosco the dog and several other characters) a Scottish brogue. “Ryan said, ‘Oh, Mr Whiskers reminds me of my agent!’ His agent is Scottish, you see.” Might viewers in Scotland be offended? “What? No! I love the cat. I have cats myself. I don’t see it as evil at all. It is just honest.” But what can she say to placate the people of “Reading”, who are insulted in a line that compares that city to hell? “It was not my idea! It was Gemma’s! She came up with the line.” Satrapi is chuckling naughtily now. “Listen to me. I’m such a coward, aren’t I? ‘‘Reading’, it wasn’t me. Gemma Arterton said it!’” “The Voices” is visually distinctive, with strong notes of Americana (bars, diners, an abandoned bowling alley) and a garish splash of kitsch (the overalls at Jerry’s factory are shocking pink, while the film ends with a jaunty song-and-dance number). It’s as though Jeff Koons had wandered into an Edward Hopper painting. But the US is also a place where the director rarely gets final cut. Why would a filmmaker of such singular vision want to put her artistic personality on the line?“I like to work with people who don’t necessarily agree with me,” she explains. “It tests the strength of your ideas. And because I didn’t have final cut on “The Voices”, I had to justify all my decisions. It helps me to realise that my instincts may not always be right. For example, I wanted to begin the film inside one of Jerry’s fantasies but through those discussions I realised that we need to ease the audience into his world. The viewer has to think, ‘Oh Jerry’s normal.’ Then: ‘Oh, Jerry’s a bit weird.’ Then: ‘Uh, Jerry just killed someone.’ So I backed down. But when I’m sure I am right, I will not give up — no one is better than me at that game, I’m like a pitbull. And the decision-makers listen to me. They’re still human beings even though they are also Americans.” Satrapi has lost none of the spark that she put on the page, and then on screen, in “Persepolis”, where the comic rage of her adolescence was barely contained in the inky blocks and minimalist lines. Raised by westernised Marxist parents in 1970s Tehran, she endured the bombing of the city before she was dispatched to Vienna for her education. After being expelled, she briefly sold drugs and lived on the streets. Returning to Iran at 19, she was in exile within five years and has remained in Paris ever since. Both book and film captured the humdrum nature of life during wartime: even with the Iran-Iraq war escalating and missiles destroying the neighbourhood, the young Satrapi’s prime concern is competing with her friends over whose dissident relatives have been in prison the longest. But “Persepolis”, and comics in general, are behind her now. “With that and my second film, “Chicken With Plums”, I became the woman who makes films about Iran. Now I’m 44 years old. I need to break the frame I’ve made for myself in order to move on. I don’t want to have any regrets once I have all the tubes in all the holes of my body. If I were to make “Persepolis 2”, I would feel like puking up over myself. And comics — no, I don’t think I will go back. There is no element of surprise at the end. With movies, I have an idea and I set out to do it and then someone like Ryan Reynolds comes along and makes it amazing!” She gives an audible shudder. “‘Amazing!’ Listen to me. I spent too long with Americans. I hate that word. It’s almost as bad as ‘awesome’.” While on the theme, Satrapi rejects the idea that “The Voices” has made her a Hollywood director. “I am not Hollywood. I am me. Who knows what I will do? When I am 70, I would like to be in a pop band. In “Little Miss Sunshine” the grandfather says that if you want to die of an overdose you must do it before the age of 27 or after the age of 72. In between those ages it just looks pathetic. I feel the same with music. If you make a pop band, you will do it when you are 16 or when you’re very old. So that’s my plan.” Gulf News © Al Nisr Publishing LLC 2015. All rights reserved. albawaba.com image:wikipedia


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