First published in November 2000, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis - a charming, funny and horrifying account of her upbringing in Iran during the years of the Islamic Revolution - is one of the few graphic novels to achieve a literary status and an international audience (one and a half million copies so far sold worldwide) on the level of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, while at the same time retaining its underground cool as part of the stable of French independent comic books, L’Association. Hollywood immediately came knocking, looking to adapt the work to the screen, but Satrapi resisted the offers and bravely decided to direct her own film adaptation. Retaining its integrity and the qualities that made the original work such an entertaining read, Persepolis this year became the first animation film to win an award at Cannes since René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet in 1973, and is the first French animation film that fully lives up to the qualities of the country’s healthy bandes dessinées comic industry.
Persepolis depicts Marjane’s childhood in Iran during the 1970s, growing up to an awareness of how her family, persecuted and imprisoned because of their Communist leanings under the Shah, are to enjoy only a brief respite before the Islamic Revolution which deposes him in 1979, since the old regime is replaced with an even more oppressive order. Forced to wear a burqa, the naturally rebellious Marjie expresses her individuality through listening to heavy rock music and outspokenly questioning her teachers. With the country becoming ever more dangerous and with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war bringing even greater horrors, Marjie’s parents decide that it is safer to send their daughter abroad to be educated in Austria during the 1980s. The culture shock of the west and some bad relationships bring Marjane back to Iran, but now belonging to neither culture, the young woman finds herself unsettled, suffering from depression, repression and a failed marriage before deciding to leave Iran for good to live in France.
Following the episodic structure of the four parts that make up the graphic novel, often told from a child’s naïve perspective, and retaining the plain clear-line drawing style reminiscent of Dupuy/Berberian (or perhaps Hergé), Persepolis appears quite simplistic, but this is very deceptive. While the stories are certainly very much superficially anecdotal, both in the history of Iran and in the key events of Satrapi’s childhood and adolescence, it is the brilliant characterisation that brings it fully to life, with superb character designs and expressive exaggeration. As it should – otherwise why lift it off the page at all? – the animated film draws out these qualities even further and adds a completely new dimension to the story, with some tremendously imaginative animation sequences, mixed with a lively music score that fully draws out the underlying humour, as well as the horror. The voice acting is also exceptional with a French cast that includes Chiara Mastroianni as Marjane, Catherine Deneuve as her mother (as in real life), Danielle Darrieux as her grandmother and Simon Abkarian as her father. With the dialogue recorded first and the animation adapted to the actor’s voices afterwards, there is consequently a vital relationship between the characters and the actors, Danielle Darrieux in particular fully inhabiting - and seemingly even offering her appearance to – her role as Marjane’s irreverent and irrepressible grandmother.
The little episodes that make up the storyline are still very much black-and-white, literally as well as figuratively (the funny sequences showing Marjie’s drawing classes in Tehran where life models wear a full burqa and even Botticelli’s Venus is blackened out perhaps giving some indication of the influences on the artist’s drawing style!) – but it is the black-and-white contrasts that set off the full dynamic in the film, never more so than in one marvellous sequence where Marjie’s perfect Austrian boyfriend is transformed into a complete slob after he cheats on her. Still images, which look like they are straight off the page of the Persepolis graphic novel, do not however do justice to the brilliant animation. Satrapi, with the assistance of fellow comic book artist Vincent “Winschluss” Parronnaud, somehow finds a way to make every sequence visually brilliant in terms of composition and movement, as well as finding a tone that is resonant with significance. Through its simple black-and-white clear-line 2-D drawings (only a couple of framing sequences are in colour), Persepolis achieves more in the field of animation than the last decade of 3-D digitally-animated cartoons.