The Salesman (2016)

the_salesman-2016

Third time with Asghar Farhadi after A Separation and The Past. I know nothing about Death of a Salesman.

This time the context for those two becomes a dynamic setting, the pretext and, in a way, the subject of the film – domestic space. Homeownership is a fragile and constantly negotiable condition; from the kinetic desperation of the crumbling apartment block in the opening scenes to the moment mirrors and mattresses are confusedly hauled up the Escher staircase at their new home, a constant, partial deracination afflicts the central couple. It’s a condition off of which the central trauma plays, but it’s also almost an always-already existent one, as suggested by the broken chain of exchange symbolised in the immoveable luggage of the previous tenant. Attempts to kindle a sense of home are heartbreakingly abortive: the briefly adopted child lightens a conciliatory dinner until the food turns to ashes in their mouths after its connection to the perpetrator is stumbled upon.

AF generally back on song as far as social politics goes, after the surprisingly questionable dynamics of TP (in brief: stoic and morally spotless grandfather-figure arrives on scene to talk some sense into a procession of hysterical and variously culpable women). Here the downscaling to a crumbling inner-city apartment is diversionary (except for some flashes of observation on dynamics of community); class is not the focus here, unlike AS perhaps, but gender. Emad’s masculine pragmatism chafes against Rana’s traumatised, aporetic indecision, boiling into inconsideration and vengefulness. This deftly turns the tables from E’s early empathetic reaction to a woman’s paranoid misandry in a taxi: he becomes blind to the extent to which R sees violence behind the eyes of any man, even after she hauntingly confides to him her Hamletian vision of hostility in the play’s audience (one of the most important differences from AS and TP, in terms of plot, is the open-endedness of the mystery). Nor can he compute R’s attempts to blame herself for her victimhood (why did she let him in? etc.)

R’s unwillingness to go to the police, to air her grievances in front of an audience, is an aspect of her isolation which introduces the most sustained social-observational angle in TS (the kind of incisive but accessible documentary content which lit up AS). The film constantly dramatises tension between public and private worlds, reputation and conscience, open justice and quiet compromise. The world of the play steps in here, creating a forum at which grievances are unconsciously channeled and vented (the actors in DoaS are all actors in AF’s story). Another highlight is the film lesson at school, E’s positive relationship with his students soured after an unfortunate, transgressively public disciplining. The dualistic tension builds towards the final confrontation, which mirrors AS but is injected with its own urgency because of this problem of decorum and sympathy.

The ethics of the ending are again contentious. The guy’s trouble suggests something of the ordinary human behind the momentary or unselfconscious act of inhumanity, which serves to represent E’s own decline to himself (the human gradually becoming a cow in the opening classroom example; E’s own rash act is itself a domestic assault). There is a central pulse-raising moment when E calls him into a stripped bedroom and lashes out in frustration at his moral incapacity to inflict humiliation in public. As the climax draws out, though, we are left standing in the stairwell wondering if we are simply being asked to feel pity for a (recently introduced) man guilty of sexual assault. Some more scrupulous editing needed here probably; the eventual cut to makeup at the theatre, E and R as separate and broken as the pacing couple at the end of AS, is an effective conclusion.

Definitely a return to form. Manages to reclaim the template of AS with structural novelty. Gripping stuff.

8

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