Second-Story Man finally has its home-opener. We’ll be screening at the County Theater in Doylestown, PA and the Ambler Theater in Ambler on 5/23 and 5/24, respectively. I’ll be at both screenings for a Q&A. Check us out here for more information: http://www.renewtheaters.org/blog/films/second-story-man-filmmaker-neal-dhand/
I know Shirin Neshat as a video installation artist. A student recently recommended her 2009 film Women Without Men (WWM), and it’s worth a look. Sort of a magical-realist film it focuses, as the title indirectly suggests, on a group of abused, alone, and/or depressed women in Iran whose paths converge at what seems to be a semi-fictional rest house. Running alongside the female narratives is a glimpse at the turbulent politics in 1960s Iran and the beginnings of the Freedom Movement.
If WWM is striking for any one thing it’s Neshat’s visuals. She and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht compose some gorgeous images. The score, by the great Ryuichi Sakamoto (if you don’t know him do yourself a favor and pick up any of his scores), is also impressive.
Some of the events in WWM are magical. A character levitates. A man appears with no face (more on that below). A woman comes back to life. But others – and actually much of the narrative – fits the description ‘magical realism’ because of how the scenes are shot. Neshat depicts a suicide – shown twice in the film – in a believably surreal way. The camera hovering behind the would-be jumper in slow-motion. A profile shot of the woman as she falls to her death shows her face as at peace. Her landing is not grotesque. There’s none of the usual pooling of blood. Instead, she lands almost as a doll. Feet tightly together, arms at her side, dress clean and intact.
It’s these tactics that, as much as the actual magical plot points, that push her film into the world of dreams.
Images like these-
-are both pretty and fantastic. Kind of like they’ve been pulled from a sultry Tennessee Williams picture or the prologue to Melancholia.
While the politics are a sub-theme here, the freedom (or lack thereof) of women in Iran is Neshat’s main thesis and she supports that by her framing, which frequently centers the woman and cuts off the man. Case-in-point:
The first image above relegates the man to a soft focus background, where the subsequent image ignores his face altogether. It’s preferential treatment for the female from a composition standpoint (though she is fractured by the split-mirror), and almost a visual revenge: the men can control the narrative (and society), but the women will control the frame.
Here’s a look at an early scene that I mentioned above. It takes place at a brothel:
It’s a slow moment amidst the horrors of this particular woman’s daily life. Despite the surroundings oozing lust, Neshat shoots this shot sequence sensually – or at least comfortably. The middle frames here, where he touches her hand and she responds, aren’t sleazy or cringe-inducing. They’re comforting.
The ending image – where the man’s eyes and mouth have been “sewn” shut – reminiscent of Tarsem’s early imagery – is haunting. It’s thematically relevant and poignant (a sexual situation turned symbolic; the man “taking on” the woman’s plight seemingly by osmosis). What’s difficult about this scene is that it’s unreal. Indeed, almost anything advantageous to a woman in the film has to occur via some level of surreality, rendering these moments beautiful, but also unattainable.
One of my favorite parts about WWM is the small tongue-in-cheek humorous bits. Consider the ending where a routine party is infiltrated by the military:
This could easily be a still from a Bunuel film. The two societies, the military and the bourgeois, meeting at the dinner table. Neshat says on the special features that it’s her way of tying the two narrative strands together. That’s definitely logical. But it’s also most certainly ironic. The women have come to this wayward home to escape, yet it’s they who invite society to them. The society people are the cause for the military to arrive. Though this scene has a heartfelt and happy conclusion it still points to the cyclical, inescapability that permeates certain parts of Iranian culture.