Monday, June 11, 2012

A Separation & A Doll's House

This post is meant for those who have seen A Separation and read A Doll's House (all seventeen of you).

A major theme of A Separation is classsomething I simply wanted to note as it goes unmentioned below.

* * *


After watching A Separationwell deserving of its reputation as one of the best films of 2011I was struck with how similar it is to Ibsen's A Doll's House; it's sort of a disassembled, reconstructed version of the play. 

Both works feature doors that slam like gunshots. Ibsen's play famously ends with a door slamming shut that stands as a tremendous, shattering exclamation point.

Both works involve men who care more about their honor and reputation than they do their wives (though neither of them would see it that way), which results in doomed marriages for both.  This occurs in A Separation multiple times. Once when Nader decides to stay in Iran with his sick father instead of going abroad with his wife (Simin) to create a better life for their daughter (Termeh), and once again when he refuses to pay off Hodjat for a crime he (probably) believes himself to be innocent of (which would have ensured the safety of his daughter). The first decision causes his wife to file for divorce; the second causes her to leave for good (she was on the brink of moving back in with him). Likewise, Nora leaves her husband Torvald in A Doll's House because he chooses to obey a blackmailer instead of sacrificing his reputation for her. 

Both feature women who are forced to help their husbands by earning money for them in secret. In A Separation, Razieh—much like Nora in A Doll's Houseis thanked for this by being blamed for, among other things, ruining her husband's reputation.

Both feature themes about the law being too cut and dry to take important moral complexities into account. In A Separation Nader tells his daughter that, though he knew Hodjat's wife Razieh was pregnant when he pushed her, he didn't "remember" (or think about it) at the time because his emotions got the best of him. When she asks him why he lied to the police (he told them definitively that he didn't know Razieh was pregnant),  he says something that is highly reminiscent of the following dialogue from Ibsen's play:

Krogstad [Nader]: The law cares nothing about motives.
Nora [Termeh] : Then it must be a very foolish law.
Krogstad [Nader]: Foolish or not, it is the law by which you will be judged...

This theme is mirrored by Torvald in A Doll's House and Hodjat in A Separation, two characters with an unwavering moral certainty that comes from their respective religions.

* * *
One of the great things about Ibsen's play is that Torvald, however ignorant and oppressive, is a full, sympathetic character. He's a buffoon, yes, but an unwitting one. His oppression of Nora is nothing more than the result of allowing himself to be held captive by his era (not always, depending on your era, a forgivable offense). His sense of honor and pride is a byproduct of the world he inhabits, his definition of love is the one that's been handed down to him. This is not noble, but it's human. Torvald has followed the path of least resistance and thus ended up a sort of victim himself—not one of patriarchy or naïveté, but one of cynicism and society. Likewise, all of the characters in A Separation—and this is the film's defining strengthare sympathetic; their flaws and points of view are—however wrongheadedcompletely understandable.

A Doll's House is ultimately about individuality and self identity, about how attaching yourself to someone elseor something else, as Torvald does with custom and traditioncan be at the expense of your own autonomy. To never discover yourself, to never find your own identity, is to always play the role that's been cut out for you (by your culture as well as by other people's expectations). It is to give yourself over to the force of the world and be shaped by its hand. In short, it is to be damned.

"It is our fate, if we never had the chance to rebel," Arno Gruen wrote, "to live the absurdity of never having experienced a self of our own." In that sense, both of these works are also about people who are learning—or failing—to rebel.



Andrew Gilbert said...

For some reason I kind of ignored A Separation,being wary that it was the sanctioned 'foreign' movie of the year (like Life is Beautiful, etc). This is an interesting post and I'll be sure to check it out now.

Tyler said...

I share your bias against such things; the Academy's foreign film nominees -- let alone winners -- are usually junk (at least nowadays), but A Separation is definitely an exception. (I only watched it due to trusted word of mouth.) It's very morally complex, and somewhat reminiscent of a Dardenne film. I just hope you forget most of what I said in this post before you finally see it; it's best to know as little as possible going in.

Did you read what Rosenbaum said about the film? More accurately, what he said about its reception:

"The unexpectedly huge acclaim accorded to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation in the U.S, appears to be motivated by something more than an appreciation for a better-than-average feature. Is this a sufficient reason for it to be the most successful Iranian film to be released in America to date? Why was it named the best foreign language film of 2011 by the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, and the New York Critics Circle, and the best picture of the year by the most popular American film critic (Roger Ebert), meanwhile placing third as the best picture by the National Society of Film Critics (which rarely considers films for this category in any language but English, and included only one other such film in its latest top ten, Ruiz’s Mistérios de Lisboa)? Why was it nominated for two separate Academy Awards?

I suspect that an important reason for this sort of enthusiasm is the desire of many Americans — or at least Americans who see foreign-language films — not to go to war again, shortly after the (very) belated return of American troops from Iraq, and during the incessant and frightening beating of war drums by all of the Republican candidates for President except for Ron Paul (who still isn’t taken seriously by the mainstream media–and not because of his radical economic positions, but, to all appearances, because he refuses to support another American invasion in the Middle East). It’s a good example, in any case, of the way that the cultural impact of some films can’t be gleaned from reading reviews and might even be inexplicable to people years later. Who cares today about Mrs. Miniver, the William Wyler propaganda feature of 1942 that won six Oscars, including best picture, director, screenplay, cinematography, actress, and supporting actress, and was nominated for six others?"

Tyler said...

To me this is a ridiculous reaction. Rosenbaum assumes motives for why people like the film without even considering the possibility that people might actually genuinely like it! It sort of reminds me of the whole Tiny Furniture controversy where, instead of believing that people at Criterion might have actually liked the film, its detractors (many of whom hadn't even seen it!) assumed it was only released because Dunham had "connections." (The theory might indeed be correct, but those who put it forth never gave a shred of evidence in support of it.)

Rosenbaum's remarks also don't make sense because they seem to imply that "huge acclaim" usually goes to the best films, which is something he doesn't even believe! Drive is another hugely acclaimed film that he didn't think too much of, yet I don't remember him ascribing political motives to help explain its reception. "Above-average" films get acclaimed all the time, so why is he trying to figure out the motivation behind the acclaim of A Separation (which he deems to be above-average) and not every other above-average film that gets acclaimed? It would make more sense to wonder why a film that's actually good got such acclaim, since that's more of an anomaly! (That, say, Kiarostami's films are more formally challenging than Farhadi's --which at least partially explains the marginalization of the former and the acclaim of the latter -- gets nary a mention.) In any case, Rosenbaum's theory might have something to do with the reception of A Separation, but he's presented it in a way that doesn't even leave the door open for differing tastes (or, for that matter, the possibility that he watched it with a tainted eye because of all the acclaim it received). I like Rosenbaum in general, but sometimes he goes off the rails. (Some of the things he's written about Lars von Trier are another standout example).

As far as A Separation not accurately portraying what divorce is like for women in Iran (which Rosenbaum brings up via his friend), well, that's another discussion entirely...

Andrew Gilbert said...

That reaction is fascinating, especially considering that at one point Rosenbaum said ALL films from Iran are essential, simply for the act of humanizing them against the onslaught of demonization in American media!

Also, I've been following the Dunham controversy closely (I'm doing my thesis work on this reception) and I'm baffled about the extent to which people make these claims.

Rosenbaum could have a good argument here, but it has to be placed in a larger context among competing interpretations.

Tyler said...

I'm not sure his argument would be very strong even in a larger context. A lot of the best Iranian cinema is among the most challenging (or, for lack of a better word, the most daring) cinema in the world, and even the less challenging work is often not as accessible to many Westerners largely because they're locked into a certain mode and expectation of what cinema is. This, I think, explains the breakout success of A Separation a lot more convincingly than his political theory. It's a great (or "above-average," as Rosenbaum sees it) film that also happens to fit the criteria of the Academy and many Western critics. (That he doesn't consider it a great film is irrelevant as long as he concedes that "critical darlings" don't always equate to quality, which he would. Besides, what does the Academy and much of the mainstream critical community excel at if not nominating bad, average, and slightly above average films?) And it also explains why Kiarostami's first "European" film is by far his most widely acclaimed, as well as why the most junky European films usually dominate the Best Foreign Film category. I mean, does Rosenbaum really sit at home wondering why Juan J. Campanella (THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES) won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film while Lisandro Alonso has yet to be nominated?

All of this makes me wonder if it might be worthwhile to trace the mainstream critical reaction to Kiarostami over the years, with a special focus on Ebert, the most popular critic, as well as Denby, tastemaker for New York's faux-in-the-know. (Both started off loathing Kiarostami only to later embrace Certified Copy).

Andrew Gilbert said...

These are all solid points. I was merely being generous with Rosenbaum because I typically admire him, but sometimes (as of late) he seems to focus more on the 'why is this so popular? look at this better less accessible stuff' arguments, which can be pretty grueling at times, considering how strong of a critique he is/was back when he wrote more conventional review pieces.

I fully agree with your point about Iranian cinema and the success of A Separation.

Yeah, Ebert's piece on The Taste of Cherry (along with his hatchet job on Film Socialisme) are two of the strongest reasons why I've never considered him anything but a bore.

Tyler said...

I just wanted to quickly note that the two theories I outlined above regarding the success of A Separation aren't necessarily mutually exclusive (I probably made it sound like I thought they were).

There is much to admire about Rosenbaum's writings, I agree. His Movie Wars is essential reading, period. (I'd recommend it for everyone, not just those interested in film.)

Ebert would be at least interesting if he bothered to do more than simply summarize the first three-fourths of a movie's plot in the first three-fourths of his review.

Andrew Gilbert said...

Right right, I didn't take it as being mutually exclusive, but thanks for the clarification!

Movie Wars is excellent, I also recommend Movies as Politics if you haven't read it. And even his latest Goodbye Cinema, is a worthy read.

My main problem with Ebert (although I agree with you 100%) is that he treats every 'difficult' movie as a deliberate assault on its audience. The Kiarostami or Godard only want to confuse their audiences to maintain some sense of superiority and that Ebert is the noble everyman calling "bullshit" on their pseudo intellectualism. He seriously treats Godard like he deliberately crafts impossible puzzles to confuse to people, unless of course, we are talking about his 60s works, which is so easy to canonize.