One of the problems with being a relentlessly experimental filmmaker progressively pushing the boundaries of the medium as an artform is how far can you push it before it breaks. For Kiarostami the issue has even more relevance, the Iranian director increasingly striving over his films to reduce the contribution of the director, or at least reduce the visibility of his influence. From the use of a static camera in a car in 10 to five static scenes of a sea shore in Five, Dedicated to Ozu, despite concerns from an outline description that the concept is being pushed a little too far, in execution Kiarostami has always triumphed, the director allowing the power of the images themselves to find a means to speak more directly to the viewer, the experience always being profoundly cinematic.
The question of cinema speaking to an audience is very much to the fore in Kiarostami’s latest film, Shirin, the entire film consisting of head-and-shoulder shots of an audience in a movie theatre watching a film – an adaptation of a 12th century epic Persian poem – that we hear but never see. Not insignificantly, the faces we see reacting to the film are all those of women, with men being visible only occasionally in the background. In a theatre environment, this makes for a curious experience, being part of an audience watching another audience, with something invisible lying in-between. With nothing else to view over the course of the entire length of the feature, it can also be a sometimes frustrating experience, the viewer often wishing that they were watching the film they are hearing rather than the one they are watching. This prompts a range of emotions and reactions, forcing you to reflect on the experience of cinema itself, the absurdity of sitting in a darkened room, looking at clearly manufactured images - watching reactions of actors (the surprise appearance of Juliette Binoche bringing that realisation home to anyone who doesn’t recognise the faces of the Iranian actors on the screen), emoting to something intangible.
Although it is not revealed as such over the course of the 92 minutes of the film, the suspicion that it is all faked from the lack of any significant flickering or colouration changes of the light playing across the faces of the audience, could be seen as a negative point against the film – a fact confirmed by comments made by Kiarostami on the making of the film that the choice of soundtrack and subject for the film was only added after shooting. What could be seen as an exploration of the female face and their emotional responses is negated then by the fact that they are all actresses, performing to cues rather than genuine human stimulus – but in principle, this fits in with Kiarostami’s views on the nature of perception and reality. And despite the limitations of the setting and its evident fakery, the director taking his minimalist approach here to extremes even beyond the static shots of Five, Dedicated to Ozu, Shirin does manage to strike a chord and raise intriguing questions. Are our reactions in relation to what we are seeing or what we are listening to? What is the relationship between sound and image? And, more importantly, what is the personal relationship we forge with this combination of sound and image? Do the reactions come from within and are they more an expression of who we are?
The approach is not a new one - Victor Erice, while perhaps not being as strict as to not even show the film being viewed, used images of children viewing a showing of Frankenstein to similarly powerful effect in The Spirit of the Beehive and perhaps not coincidentally, Kiarostami and Erice have collaborated together in recent years, notably on an installation of cinematic correspondence between the two directors for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. While it appears closer to an art installation than traditional narrative cinema, what prevents Shirin from occupying a place in a modern art gallery rather than the cinema is the fact that it directly confronts the nature of cinema and can only do it by being shown in a cinema theatre. (Consequently, I’m not sure how effectively this will play when it transfers to DVD). As such however, for all the interesting questions it raises and the reaction it provokes, Shirin is nonetheless a minor incidental work from Kiarostami, one that pauses to consider the nature of what he does before he, more than any director working in cinema today, can capably and reliably be expected to take it to the next level.