PERSEPOLIS written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, from Satrapi’s graphic novels, with voices of Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve. A Mongrel Media release. 95 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (January 11). Rating: NNNN
In her graphic novels and now in the film based on her Persepolis books, Marjane Satrapi – the character – comes across as one helluva shit disturber. But even those vivid, ink-drawn images can’t prepare you for Satrapi in person. She’s 3-D, she’s in colour and she’s completely animated.
“They keep saying that cigarettes kill you,” says Satrapi, ranting about the city’s smoking bylaws. It’s during the Film Festival, where she and the film are a big hit, building justifiable Oscar buzz. I’ve just caught her outside a hotel puffing furiously between interviews.
“So they kill you. What do these people think? That we’re never going to die? We all die!”
Satrapi sports a brightly coloured dress, a big smile and a beauty mark recognizable from her graphic novel self. She talks in a high-pitched voice that carries notes from all the places she’s lived: Iran, where she was born and escaped the Islamic Revolution at 14, Austria, where she studied a while, and France, where she eventually settled and made a new life in 1994.
Persepolis recounts her life in all of these places, but its heart, like Satrapi’s, remains firmly in her childhood Tehran. I ask whether the book and movie are available there.
“Under the table everything is available in Iran,” she laughs. In fact, one of the book and movie’s funniest sequences involves the teenage Marjane buying heavy metal tapes on the black market.
“I don’t think it’s going to be shown in any official way. It’s strange,” she adds. “People think in Iran you don’t see anything. But it’s like the apple in the Garden of Eden. Because it’s forbidden you want it more.”
Recreating her life in comic book form is one thing – and it’s earned her an international fan base, plus respect among her peers, including her co-director, comic book artist Vincent Paronnaud (aka Winshluss). But adapting it for the screen is another, especially when there are so many computer-generated animated films out there.
“I’m not against computer images, and some very good things are being done, but Vincent and I are both cartoonists, and paper-and-ink is something holy to us. We wanted to keep the freshness of the line in the books. The vibration you get in the comics is impossible to make on a computer, which gives you something very clean.
“I think it was designer Milton Glaser who said the difference between drawing something on a computer and drawing it on paper is like the difference between making love to a woman and masturbating while reading a porno magazine. The end result is the same, but the feeling isn’t.”
As for the film itself, it goes far beyond using the graphic novel as a series of storyboards.
“That idea – that comics are just storyboards – is so stupid, and it’s condescending to the art form,” she says. “Storyboards are just part of the procedure of making a movie. When you read a comic book, you’re active. Moviegoing is more passive: you’re given music, sounds, movement. We had to forget about the books to make the movie. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to make.”
Satrapi insists that Persepolis is a personal story, and she’s changed names and situations of certain people, like callous ex-boyfriends
. But she also understands that her story of political change, exile and coming of age is universal.
“It happened in Iran, but anyone can relate to it. How many times has this story happened already throughout the world? And it’s continuing, even in democracies.”
She hopes the book and movie will break down people’s preconceptions about other parts of the world.
“We’re living in a world with separations,” she says. “We talk about Muslim and Christian, North and South, East and West. If there’s a real separation in the world, it’s between stupid and smart people. And believe me, the stupid person is international.
“Life has been reduced to abstract notions. We talk about Iran in terms of nuclear weapons, fanaticism, terrorism, Islam. People forget that there are people living there who are exactly like them. It’s time we put the human being at the centre. And I think this movie is very individualistic. The individual human being is the basis for democracy.
“If we consider people only as a mass, that’s the end of it.”
Additional Audio Clip
On the collaborative nature of film vs. the solitary nature of comic book writing:
PERSEPOLIS (Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud) Rating: NNNN
Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novels about life in Iran and beyond have been completely reimagined for the big screen, resulting in a visually thrilling and moving look at art and politics.
The hand-drawn, mostly black-and-white drawings create a hyperreal universe that’s alternately playful and horrific. This is animation from a strong artistic vision, not one made by committee. There’s special affection here for writer/co-director Satrapi’s family, especially her grandmother, voiced by veteran French actor Danielle Darrieux.
Satrapi doesn’t shy away from making her younger selves look silly or vain, or even – in one of the film’s most chilling sections – callous, when a casual remark leads to a personal betrayal during one of the most extreme revolutions in modern history. GS