March 2017

Arts & Letters

Backstage drama

By Luke Davies
The domestic disquiet of Asghar Farhadi’s ‘The Salesman’ gives way to suspense

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi is best known for A Separation (2011), a subtle film that was both beguiling and hypnotic, perhaps because of and not despite its measured pacing. The film won more than 60 awards, including the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Farhadi’s latest feature, The Salesman (in national release 9 March), which returns to bustling, middle-class Tehran, has already picked up numerous awards. Most recently it won Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars.

Farhadi had spoken of his plan to use his Academy Awards platform to say something about American Islamophobia. But when President Trump released his executive order barring entry to the United States from seven countries, including Iran, Farhadi announced that he would boycott the ceremony in protest. He would not come to the US. He would not come to the Oscars, even though he acknowledged them as a “great cultural event”. For Farhadi, the uncertainties and ambiguities inherent in the wording of Trump’s ban and the restrictions that flowed from it were “in no way acceptable to me, even if exceptions were to be made for my trip”.

In his statement, published in the New York Times, Farhadi criticised “hard-liners” of all nations, who, he said, create an us/them dichotomy in order to turn other nations’ and cultures’ “differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears”. It’s easy to read Trump into this description: fake fear delivered from the White House Performance Room or via Twitter seems to continually morph into real fear among the huddled masses. It’s clear, too, that when Farhadi uses the phrase “hard-liners”, he is also alluding to the clerics who stand behind the façade of Iranian democracy, suspicious of the more Westernised aspects of Iranian culture.

What more of a nod to Western culture than to make a film set around an amateur production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a mournful, claustrophobic play about post-exuberant American capitalism in an energy-depleted death-howl? Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), are actors in the production. There are ominous references to shadowy players, government functionaries perhaps, who hover just outside the creative hubbub. “They’re coming back tonight after the performance,” says one of the actors. “Three passages might still be censored.” Are these the thought police, the emissaries of the “hard-liners”? We never learn more. Nobody in the theatre production can be said to be joyful – there’s earnestness to everything they do, in fact – but they all plough forward, as if the main point is that, even in a quasi-police state, the show must go on.

The film opens with Emad and Rana in their apartment, which seems to be about to collapse. The entire building’s panicked residents are being evacuated. A panning camera stops on a window, which then simply cracks before our eyes. It’s a marvellously economical way, in a low-budget film, of showing us that, yes, collapse is indeed imminent, and the building is undergoing immense strain. It’s a two-for-the-price-of-one effect, too: Emad and Rana’s marriage will undergo real strain in what follows. Perhaps, the moment seems to suggest, the world of the film is one stress away from cracking.

When Emad and Rana, who have the lead roles of Willy and Linda Loman in the play, learn they won’t be able to return home for some time because of the incident, a fellow cast member, Babak (Babak Karimi), comes to the rescue. He owns an empty apartment that they can stay in for a while. It’s a generous offer, and the grateful couple move their belongings into Babak’s spare flat. But there seems to be a catch: the previous tenant, who moved out for unclear reasons, has left all her belongings, packed into boxes, in the apartment. She’ll have them picked up any day now, claims Babak. Emad and Rana shouldn’t worry about it.

They don’t, at first, even though there’s one whole room they can’t use for now. But then the days drag on, and Babak keeps making excuses for the mysterious ex-tenant. At a certain point, Emad moves the belongings out onto the patio, where they promptly get rained on. He covers them with plastic sheeting, but by now Farhadi has successfully made us feel that these makeshift, haphazard, waterlogged circumstances have somehow infiltrated the characters’ lives, and a quiet unease has become the order of the day.

There’s a languid confidence with which Farhadi moves all of this forward. But it’s very subtle, and, as with A Separation, you might find yourself wondering what exactly you’re about to become engaged with, or rather, gripped by. It’s not Polanski, who in early films such as The Tenant (1976) or Repulsion (1965) liked to construct seemingly innocuous opening stretches, through which he allowed the menace to begin seeping at a rather early stage. There’s an odd methodological affinity between Polanski’s and Farhadi’s films, but with Farhadi the menace is so sublimated it’s not present, either as subterranean mood or even incipient unease, until well into the second half of his films. For a long time in The Salesman you might feel you’re in a slender art-house affair: a low-energy observational drama with a psychology that is about the subtle offbeats of daily life.

And yet you know damned well something’s coming, even as you get lulled into the film’s peaceful currents. Farhadi studied theatre at the University of Tehran, and he wrote a thesis on the function of silence and pause in Harold Pinter’s plays. That’s an overtly interesting fact in relation to The Salesman: the unnamed ex-tenant, as with the “he” in Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (“What’s he doing all this for? What’s the idea? What’s he playing these games for?”), never arrives, is never seen. But she is the pivotal presence around which the increasingly complex narrative jostles and swirls. (It feels like not too long a bow to draw, given Farhadi’s proven interest in one particular practitioner of the theatre of the absurd, that Godot might be loitering somewhere just off screen too.)

One night, when Emad is not home, Rana is attacked in the new apartment. The specific details of the attack are never made clear, to Emad or to the audience, due to Rana’s dilemma about questions of honour and saving face. After the attack, Rana finds performing in the play increasingly difficult. One night she freezes, simply unable to deliver her next line. The awkward actors cancel the performance. “The gaze of the audience bothered me,” she tells a concerned Emad, nonchalantly or numbly, later.

Details about the ex-tenant remain unclear, except that her life was in some kind of disarray. Was Rana’s attacker there, in fact, because of the shadowy woman? Rana feels guilt, because on the night of the attack she had buzzed the door open when the intercom rang, expecting it to be someone else – and then stepped into the shower. Now, as she gradually shuts down, as her relationship with Emad begins to falter, she won’t – can’t – even take a shower.

For Emad, Babak comes under a cloud of suspicion, as it’s clear he’s not telling the full story about the circumstances of the ex-tenant.

So far so moody, so subtly apprehensive. The film is not perfect – there seemed to me to be a particularly glaring logic problem about the attacker leaving his van in the apartment car park for a week – but it is intriguing enough. Then a remarkable thing happens, which makes it worth waiting around for. You think it’s been one kind of movie for so long, but then it becomes, compellingly, another. A salesman and his family come into the picture, so now, thematically, the “play within the play” begins to resemble the film’s superstructure.

In the final 30 minutes A Salesman becomes chilling and complex, and far more gripping. Emad wants revenge. That’s all well and good, but as his plan takes shape we get the sneaking suspicion that any revenge will be for the purposes of assuaging his hurt ego (a stranger attacked my wife) far more than for his wife’s pain.

“We’re free and clear,” says Rana, playing Linda Loman, over poor old Willy in his coffin, in the closing scene of Death of a Salesman. That “free and clear” refers to the mortgage that’s been hanging over the Loman family all their lives. But The Salesman, which ultimately becomes a meditation on the subject of revenge versus forgiveness, leaves hanging the question of just how free and how clear Rana and Emad’s marriage will remain, when the play is over, and the salesman is gone.

This article has been updated to reflect The Salesman’s win at this year’s Oscars.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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