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 Leila makes 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 Leila deeply 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.

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.

Or should I say the bedroom from which Leila has exiled herself? The confusion and conflation of action and reaction, especially within the symbiotic construction of marriage, is very much the issue of this film. That it’s couched entirely in Leila’s point of view doesn’t make it one-sided. Mehrjui keeps us constantly at Leila’s side without coloring the film with her subjectivity. Although we see nothing on the screen that occurs outside her presence, our access to her interiority is as limited as it is to that of the other characters. What went wrong here and who is to blame? You and your significant other could debate that for hours. Among its most unexpected virtues, Leila is a great date movie.

As far as imaginable from the monstrous mother of Leila is Larisa Loktev, a Russian immigrant and former computer programs analyst who now spends all her time caring for her husband, Leonid Loktev, also a former computer analyst, who was severely brain damaged when he was hit by a car while crossing a road between two yard sales in his Colorado neighborhood on April Fool’s Day 1989. Their daughter, Julia Loktev, has made a documentary, Moment of Impact, about her parents’ daily life that is as discomforting as it is brilliant.

Shot with a handheld home video camera, the film is an intimate, unsparing view of a dread situation. Since the accident, Leonid has been capable of almost no autonomous physical movement and only the most limited speech. How much he understands is another matter— there are clues that he might be thinking far more than he can express. Larisa takes care of him 24-7 because she can’t stand how limited his life would be if he were in a nursing room and because her insurance company has denied home assistance. “I’m just a person placed in circumstances,” says Larisa, when her daughter grills her about her choices. “In principle, a responsible, reliable person, and he has no one else.”

If I were not so moved by the mother, I might be more disturbed than I was about the way the camera intrudes on her life and that of her husband. There’s no way of knowing how Leonid feels about having his vulnerability exposed, but he seems, at moments, to resent his filmmaker daughter intensely. The daughter is not unaware of the problem, but she toughs it out. “The only time I don’t feel invisible is when I go to aerobics,” says the mother. Thanks to this film, the witnesses to her life may be counted in the thousands.