“The Salesman”

The winner of the best foreign language film of 2016, “The Salesman” is a provocative look at Iranian culture. Director and writer Asghar Farahdi also won an Oscar for his 2011 film ” A Separation”. He is good at showing the male/female dynamic in a culture where power is so skewed in male favor. The film is complex and shifts settings and registers from the classroom, to the set of a stage production of Arthur Miller’s ” Death Of A Salesman”, to daily family life in modern Tehran.

Our protagonist is a high school English teacher, he and his wife are also parents and actors. Emad Estesami ( Shahab Hosseini) and his wife, Rana ( Taraneh Alidoosti) must quickly evacuate their apartment complex. Windows are cracking and plaster is crumbling.  A construction project next door has destabilized their space. In an initial scene, we see all the residents tumble down the stairs amid the smell of gas.This is a precursor of things to come.

When a friend finds them temporary shelter in a friend’s semi-abandoned apartment,   an intruder surprises Rana in the shower. Her screams draw residents, and Rana and Emad’s life will never be the same. Part thriller and morality play, “The Salesman” is unevenly paced in real time, except for one six months later jump. Once the pitiful deviant is found, our sympathies sway. Emad, the patient teacher and husband, comes unhinged. Once easy and jocular, Emad is revenge-filled. Questions like ” Can an obsession with justice be unjust? ” and ” Can self-doubt humiliate beyond repair?” throws us back to Linda and Willy Loman. Viewers understand that “attention must be paid”. Our stories are not so easily judged.


“In The Name of My Daughter”

Like a Greek tragedy where the story is half told by the Greek chorus,the French film “In The Name Of My Daughter” tells a tale of greed and obsessive love without showing key plot elements. I found this fable-like, with the catharsis centered on child and parental relationships. The protective and powerful parent and the yearning-for-freedom-child, in this case a twenty-nine year old divorcee, plays out well. In France, mother/daughter relationships are close.The age old mantras of “I’m not a little girl, anymore” and “My job is to protect you” are here. The sub-theme of the film could be “children can be one’s undoing” ,for ironically,the son of the accused killer finds his loyalty on the side of the righteous,while the wealthy mother loses everything in her daughter’s betrayal.

All of my sympathy went to Renee de Roux,the mother played by Catherine Devenue. Perhaps, this is because the screenplay was based on her memoirs,”Une Femme Face A La Mafia”. Perhaps, because my own daughter was rebellious and is still willful. In any case,Catherine Devenue, the the face of Chanel perfume in the ’70’s, goes through hell. She is not immediately sympathetic. Renee Le Roux is a powerful workaholic~controlling and consumed with keeping her casino palace out of the hands of the Italian Mafia. “The Palais de la Mediterranee” has kept her from giving her daughter the attention she wants. Yet,Devenue’s face radiates love and joyful amusement at her daughter’s independent strivings.

Under the direction of Andre Techine, we see Devenue lose five million francs in one night to crooks. We see her lawyer and personal advisor succumb to her daughter’s flirtations and worse. We see her daughter’s attempted suicide and her refusal to see her mother.

Renee’s own refusal to release her daughter Agnes’s three-million-dollar inheritance seems reasonable given the circumstances. She asks Agnes to wait two years,and offers to financially front a desired bookstore and artisan-textile shop. Agnes wants to “be free”and rejects all to foolishly allow her love-interest and her mother’s former advisor to co-sign a joint account.

Devenue is splendid as she uses cigarette- holder,trench-coat and those eyes and that voice to portray a woman betrayed but still able to sing “Stand By Me”. She understands her daughter,and spends thirty years trying to bring closure to her dissapearance. This mother-love may be the obsessive love to match her daughter’s. When Renee’s driver,Mario, speaks badly about her daughter,she is so pained that she must lie down. She explains that her daughter betrayed her only because she was manipulated. We know she is right.

There is a sophistication in expecting the viewers to know something about the so-called “baize-wars” of the 1970’s. The film’s narrative is not particularly logical. Life relationships are like this; everyone has their reasons. Some reasons are more self-serving than others.

All of my loathing goes to Maurice Agnelet,superbly acted by Guillaume Canet. As the lawyer and family advisor he is the most narcissistic, revengeful and scheming, greedy charmer to appear on screen in quite some time. Even Sergeant Troy in Thomas Hardy’s “Far From The Madding Crowd” could blame his villainy on character flaws.

Maurice’s humiliation of the La Roux family is sick. When he tells Agnes,”You will find a new pal,I’m sure”. Goodbye.”, the audience wanted to jump on the screen. Maurice tells Agnes that he is with his mistress until midnight,but he asks if he can “visit her” afterward. His famous cad words are “Don’t love me too much. I panic.” Maurice is not concerned with the fallout from the liquidation of the Palais casino either. Three hundred and fifty families will lose their livelihood, but he cares not. When Maurice yells at Renee with, “You piss me off. Devotion has its limits!” I screamed,”Right back at you” to the screen.

In extended flashbacks,Agnes, played beautifully by Adele Haenel,reminds me of Isabelle Adjani in her portrayal of Victor Hugo’s daughter in Truffaut’s “Adele H”. Both stalk their lovers,both write endlessly in their journals, and both swim or dream of swimming.The water scenes especially were a metaphor for drowning souls. Agnes’ wish to not stay at the villa,her little-girl “jumping on the bed” in her own apartment , and especially the African,hair-splaying,orgasmic dance were all intimate manifestations of independence and longing. Haenel does her nude scenes as only the French can do,both naturally and feverishly.”Don’t you fancy me?” and “I’m no coward” was as masterfully spoken as “I can’t be content with what you give me.” Whether hysterically crying, accepting bullish behavior or examining herself in the mirror,Haenal shows she can act with the best. Her look and tears as she recited,”I vote against” are Oscar worthy.

This story was the stuff of tabloids,and basically I love how the actors,screenwriters and director elevated it to Greek tragedy. Coastal shots and music are praiseworthy. It is the prolonged shot of the water spout and the story of Maurice’s brother and of his parents neither of whom attended their son’s funeral that stump me. Can someone enlighten?