The Ties That Bind

I didn't make time to see a single film in the Dariush Mehrjui retrospective at the Walter Reade this past autumn. I knew that Mehrjui was regarded as one of Iran's finest filmmakers, that he was the only Iranian filmmaker whose primary subject was personal relationships among the upper-middle-class intelligentsia, and that he'd made a quartet of films about women. One of these, an adaptation of J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, titled Pari, brought the author's wrath and the threat of a lawsuit down on the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the sponsor of the retrospective. But why would Salinger care that some obscure Iranian filmmaker had paid him homage with a meditation on his heroine, a late-'50s, New York­bred college student who is obsessed with the concept of "praying incessantly" and whose nervous breakdown is accelerated by her dinner date's remark that Flaubert "lacked testicularity"?

Now that I've seen Leila, Mehrjui's provocative and wise depiction of a promising marriage gone to hell (at the moment, it seems like the most brilliant depiction of a marriage gone to hell that I've ever seen), I'm furious at myself for having missed his retro. My resistance to Mehrjui had to do with my nitwit belief that a male filmmaker working in a culture where women are required to wear the chador would have nothing relevant to say about the particular contradictions in my American life, where women are supposedly equal under the law but misogyny rules too often in practice. What Leilamakes evident is that, in terms of the innermost layers of the psyche and the feelings of love and loathing rooted therein, the differences between American and Iranian society are not as great as a self-interested American woman (me, me, me) would expect. As it turns out, Mehrjui is the perfect filmmaker to understand what a time bomb Salinger planted with that seemingly casual remark about Flaubert's lack, a time bomb that Franny and the readers who identified with her (myself included) were incapable of disassembling. We could only respond with an inchoate sense of having been deeply dissed, and we would not begin to understand why until the feminist movement exploded a decade later.

So, too, is the heroine of Leiladeeply dissed. Her resulting anger— directed against both her husband and herself— has a kind of ascetic purity that makes it seem like devotion. Leila's problem is the female equivalent of what Franny's date inflicts on Flaubert. Blissfully married for one year, she learns that her hormonal levels are so low that it's unlikely she will be able to have a child.

Marital dis: Hatami in Leila
courtesy of First Run Features
Marital dis: Hatami in Leila

Details

Leila
Directed by Dariush Mehrjui
Written by Mahnaz Ansarian and Mehrjui
A First Run release
At Cinema Village
Opens May 14

Moment of Impact
Directed by Julia Loktev
At Anthology Film Archives
Through May 23

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Leila (Leila Hatami) and Reza (Ali Mosaffa) seem a perfectly matched couple. Attractive twentysomethings from prosperous families, they mix modernity (fooling around while watching Doctor Zhivago on video) with tradition (he goes to work; she stays home and prepares his dinner). They never question their love until they learn that they will probably never have children together. Then the seeds of doubt are sown. Reza tells Leila that he's married her for herself alone, that he doesn't care whether they have children or not. But she isn't convinced. Neither are we, for that matter.

How could Reza be immune to the values of the society in which he's been raised, where women who cannot bear children are considered cursed by God? That's how Leila views herself, and her self-hatred makes her push Reza away. Still, the situation might have been worked out if the couple had been left to their own devices. Instead, Leila's doubts about her worthiness as a wife are exacerbated by Reza's mother, the most villainous woman to appear on the screen since Snow White's stepmother. This manipulative, venomous woman is determined to make Leila acquiesce to Reza's taking a second wife so that her husband's family name does not die. Oddly enough, Reza's father considers her action reprehensible, though he stops short of forbidding her to interfere. Similarly, Reza claims that he doesn't want a second wife, but he never tells his mother to get lost. Instead of taking responsibility, he claims he'll do anything Leila wants him to do, and Leila, who's been persuaded by her mother-in-law that Reza will eventually leave her if she doesn't allow him to take a fertile second wife, encourages Reza to court other women.

It's a classic double bind— self- hating women who manipulate passive-aggressive men to their own disadvantage. The marriage goes from bad to worse as the couple become emotionally addicted to cycles of anxiety and relief. In a particularly agonizing stretch, Reza takes Leila with him in the car when he goes courting, dropping her off to window-shop or wander through the park alone while he drives on to his assignations. Each time he returns with the verdict that the woman was unsatisfactory, the two of them have a moment of release that passes for happiness. But then, the cycle starts again.

Mehrjui is an amazingly subtle, almost self-effacing filmmaker. His style is so fluid that you may be amazed to realize at the end of the film (an end that strikes some viewers as fraught with possibility and others as the final nail in the coffin) that about 10 years have passed. But he also understands the power of a close-up— the one image you might take away from the film is the pearl-encrusted hem of the second wife's bridal gown hitting the staircase as she ascends to the bedroom from which Leila has been exiled.

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