Like A Separation and The Past, Asghar Farhadi’s latest film is peculiarly concerned with the role and fate of the Iranian bourgeoisie, and the dialogue between bourgeois and traditionalist gender roles (or, rather the extent to which bourgeois gender roles are traditionalist gender roles). Even more so than the previous two films, however, this is framed as a dialogue with Western bourgeois values, with much of the action revolving around a rehearsal and performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, whose reflections on American middle-class angst shift in and out of the broader story, never quite containing it, but never quite escapable as a point of reference either. Against the backdrop of that performance, Farhadi presents the story of another marriage – this time, between Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who are playing Willy Loman and Linda Loman respectively. Unlike Farhadi’s tprevious films, this marriage seems to be fairly harmonious and successful at the beginning of the play, although the overlap between the characters’ lives on and off stage is also blurred from the very outset, since Farhadi tends to approach the play mid-rehearsal, from the perspective of the wings, or in the fluid spaces between performance and downtime, dissolving any clear cusp between theatre and world.
That diffuse space around the fringes of the stage quickly becomes the spatial principle driving the film as a whole, which opens by setting Emad and Rana against a series of provisional and somewhat precarious domestic environments that cut against the apparent stability and security of their relationship. In the disorienting opening scene, they’re herded out of their apartment complex in the middle of the night due to an undisclosed and amorphous rumbling, only to discover, when they return the next morning, that excavations next door have sent shock waves and massive cracks across all their supporting walls. While they find a new apartment fairly quickly, it feels even more porous and precarious, partly because it is elevated in a hilly region, and so straddles an uneasy position between panoramic sightlines and more claustrophobic sightlines, and partly because Farhadi shoots this apartment in a very particular way, pairing a spatially curious and restless camera with an unwillingness – or inability – to ever showcase this elevated apartment in any consistent or orienting manner. The fact that the apartment is surrounded by a wide balcony makes it even more porous, as does the lack of any clear distinction between the outdoor space that belongs to Emad and Rana, and the outdoor space that is shared among the other tenants.
Throughout all these sequences, the spatial stability of Rana and Emad’s domestic lives is further exacerbated by conflicts that take place in and around the theatrical production – conflicts that see Farhadi removing his camera to ever more oblique and tangential relations to the stage, until it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between rehearsal, performance and regular conversation. All of that instability gradually settles around one concrete part of the couple’s apartment – a room that still houses possessions left by the previous tenant, who was reputedly an escort, and who repeatedly refuses to come and collect her things, even as she threatens Emad and Rana, via their estate agent, of the consequences that will ensue if they throw them away. Eventually, however, the couple are forced to deposit her possessions on the balcony outside, where they do their best to protect them from the rain and heat, but once exposed to open space this motley crew of possessions feels even more invasive and obtrusive. With the previous tenant’s possessions permanently waiting for a moving van that never comes, Emad and Rana are unable to ever quite inhabit the apartment, just as Farhadi’s camera is never quite able to inhabit any of the spaces it traverses with any semblance of security, stability or domestic comfort either.
The main crux of the film takes place around this previous tenant, who – it is implied – enacts her revenge by telling one of her previous clients that she is still in fact living in the apartment. As a result, when Rana opens the door one evening without checking if it is Emad at the buzzer, she finds herself assaulted by one of these clients, as all the spatial porosity that has escalated over the film is condensed to her body. Critically, she is halfway between her Death of a Salesman costume and her regular garb when the attack occurs, while the exact details of the attack are never disclosed, with Farhadi simply cutting from her letting in the perpetrator to Emad discovering her at the hospital. Rather than focus on the forensic particulars of the attack, the film instead situates the attack at the diffusion of domestic space associated with the fringes of the stage – or, rather, condenses the couple’s entire domestic situation to the fringes of the stage – as the assault displaces them both from their conceptions of marriage, and their understanding of their responsibilities to one another. In the process, the assault is dissociated from any single perpetrator, and instead attributed to an amorphous misogynistic threat that has been glimpsed earlier in the film, not least in Miller’s own script, and which has now struck at the first opportunity it receives.
Much of the second act of the film follows Emad as he tries to track down the perpetrator, since of one the ironies of the case is that the perpetrator left behind a pair of keys that turn out to be attached to a removalist’s van parked a block away. Yet while this seems like a fairly tangible clue, it also subsumes the criminal back into the broader rhythm and mobility of the city, meaning that Emad’s strategies often involve simply wandering more or less aimlessly, as much as following any regular procedural route. The investigative imperative is also diluted by Emad’s efforts to negotiate his relationship with Rana in the wake of the attack, as the film settles into the pathos and silence between married men and women that forms such a central part of Farhadi’s worldview. On the one hand, Rana no longer finds herself able to play the part of a wife or woman convincingly, since she starts seeing the gaze of her attacker in those of other people, especially those who are required or “entitled” to look at her (“The gaze of one of the audience members bothered me…he had the guy’s gaze.”) Given Rana’s unwillingness to go to the police, or recount the event in any detail, this gaze is pretty much all we learn about the attacker, to the point where the male gaze itself becomes the perpetrator, explaining why Emad’s own gaze – however benignly intentioned – causes similar shock ripples for other women before the crime even occurs.
On the other hand, the crime poses problems for Emad’s role and function within their marriage. While Rana needs him to take some kind of action, she also needs him to refrain from the masculine sway over discourse that produced the crime in the first place, suffusing his actions with a pervasive impotence that sees much of the second act taking place in long, drifting, aimless sequences, punctuated by moments of rage, in which the couple circle around each other but never quite meet up as a couple. Like watching a thriller in extreme slow motion, or a thriller that can’t quite constitute itself as a thriller, the film seems to be straining for an vocabulary to describe assault that won’t be complicit in assault itself, a gesture that produces a kind of drab anti-auteurism on Farhadi’s part, as if insisting too much on his own voice is tantamount to continuing to suffocate Rana’s voice. As the climax draws near, paternal authority is continuously displaced and dislocated, most viscerally in a scene that takes place at the school where Emad works during the day. Despite being presented as a fairly genial and relaxed teacher in the opening scenes, his tensions with Rana make him more authoritarian, culminating with him confiscating a student’s phone and invoking the student’s father in rage, only to discover that this father has recently died.
Most notably, however, Emad and Rana’s inability to perform their marital roles results in an increasingly fractured relation between Miller’s play and the rest of the film. Before she is forced to leave the stage for good, Rana’s trauma starts to cause lapses in the middle of the performance, silences that are difficult to attribute entirely to her experience or to the play itself. While the play becomes traumatic because it recalls attack, it also reminds her of a newfound sense of performativity in her life and marriage as well, much as her makeup renders her face more American in some ways, but also renders the few vestiges of traditional Muslim gear all the more emphatic by comparison. As the second act proceeds, it becomes harder for Emad and Rana to ignore the fact that their middle-class angst and aspirations – the very angst and aspirations detailed in Miller’s play – are a performance that allows them to subsume and repress a more brutal and traditional gender relation subtending their marriage. Not only does this become impossible to ignore in the wake of the attack, but it removes the very idea of marital stability as a figurative horizon and rallying-point around which they might start to move beyond their shared trauma. In effect, the assault not only harms them, but removes the vocabulary that they might use to traverse that harm, especially in the case of Rana, whose body language and blocking grows more inchoate and yearning at the very moment at which she is forced to give up her part.
What the film needs, then, is an assertion of paternal authority from a figure who is at once venerable enough to speak on behalf of tradition, but simultaneously removed enough from the marriage to not feel complicit in the assault. At first, Emad seems to have found just this person in the form of an old man simply referred to as “the man,” played by Farid Sajjadi Hosseini. Emad comes across “the man” after tracking down the owner of the van, who turns out to be a young man named Majid (Motjabah Pirzadeh), who he contracts to do some moving for him at his previous apartment, which is still partly damaged and dangerous from the excavations that occurred next door. In a cruel irony, however, Majid is in the midst of shopping for his own wedding on the very day that Emad calls him, sending his father-in-law – “the man” – instead to take care of the removal. At first, the man seems to be just what Emad requires, since he immediately professes shock and understanding upon hearing of his son-in-law’s infraction, and assures Emad that he will take care of it, culminating all the real and projected voices of paternalistic assurance that have accumulated throughout the film, and forming something like an abstracted paternal signifier in his blanket insistence that everything can be contained, organised and managed.
In the film’s final twist, however, it turns out that “the man” was in fact the perpetrator, and that he was prepared to blame his prospective son-in-law if it meant eluding capture himself. It’s hard to exaggerate the import of this sudden reversal, as the discovery of the perpetrator displaces and removes the masculine authority that Emad is yearning for to an even more remote and hypothetical horizon, such that even the prospect of revenge – immediate, visceral, violent revenge – no longer feels like an option. For a moment, Emad toys with exposing the man to his wife, who comes over after the man suffers a heart attack, but when Rana arrives she quickly undercuts that plan, insisting that not another wife should suffer. Indeed, so powerful is the import of the man that Emad and Rana almost automatically conform to their previous gender roles in his presence, despite knowing of his crime and hypocrisy, with Rana advocating forgiveness, and Emad advocating some kind of consequence. Yet the man’s body is ultimately unable to sustain these roles, as he collapses, prostrate, on the stairs, and an ambulance is called, as we leave him in a limbic state between life and death that prevents Emad and Rana resolving their marriage around him.
Instead, the automatic and instinctive effort to reinstate the man as a symbol of authority ends up drawing the abject failure of masculinity that has haunted the film into traumatic relief, along with the abject inability of bourgeois marriage to contain and remediate this failure. Despite their very best efforts, Emad and Rana can’t rehabilitate what the man stands for, just as the man himself is left in a strange liminal zone between being held accountable and not being held accountable – an ideal figure for Emad and Rana’s marriage itself, which by the end is suffused with a sense of broader complicity in the assault, but a complicity that is too diffuse and amorphous to be properly contained or controlled so long as marriage is still the lens through which they view it. No surprise, then, that these final sequences bookend the final scenes of Death of a Salesman, which also dwell on the false freedom of the middle class, yet Farhadi’s vision is considerably bleaker and less self-aggrandising, as Emad and Rana are robbed of even the pathos of Miller’s vision. By presenting Death of a Salesman without the death – not even the death of “the man” – Farhadi ultimately critiques Miller’s play as much as he invokes it, evoking a society in which it is not the decline of the middle-class patriarch, but the durability of the middle-class patriarch, that is the real tragedy. Rather than end with Emad, or the man, or Willy Loman tragically self-destructing, then, we end, instead, with Emad and Rana putting on their makeup for the next performance, apparently capable of playing their roles once again, if only because they have accepted that performance is all they have to really fall back upon, in possibly the bleakest conclusion to any of Farhadi’s dissection of Iranian marriage to date.