When Ratatouille was released this past summer, I thought it was one of the best animated films I'd ever seen —certainly finer than anything else in that category that could come along in the same year. I still hold Pixar's gourmet rodent near to my heart, but now, one week before the end of 2007, comes Persepolis (Sony Pictures Classics), a completely different kind of animated movie that, perhaps even more than Ratatouille, reimagines what the medium can do.
Directed by the comic-book artists Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud from a four-book series of autobiographical novels by Satrapi, the movie has a signature look. Except for a framing story in color, all the images are in black, white, and countless shades of gray. The pleasingly simple, hand-drawn characters, and flat, often abstractly patterned backgrounds show the influence of everything from Charles Schulz to German Expressionism to Persian miniature painting to shadow puppetry. But the resulting mood is never cerebral or self-consciously postmodern. The story of Marjane's coming of age has the emotional directness (a cynic might call it sentimentality) of a classic of adolescent literature, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or The Catcher in the Rye.
The story begins in Tehran in 1978. Marjane (voiced at age 8 by Gabrielle Lopes), a live wire of a little girl, is an only child living with her parents (Catherine Deneuve and Simon Akbarian) and an adored and adoring grandmother (the venerable French actress Danielle Darrieux). Marjane is a product of the educated middle-class, listening to adults discuss politics at parties while she tries out her Bruce Lee moves on the other kids. She doesn't really get what it means when the Shah is deposed by the Islamic Revolution (though she enjoys shouting anti-Shah slogans at bedtime and dreams of becoming Allah's next prophet).
But as the Ayatollah's joyless regime closes in, Marjane's family begins to suffer for their secular progressivism: Her uncle, a Communist, is imprisoned and eventually killed. The Iran-Iraq War begins (its senseless carnage evoked in one brief but indelible image) and with it, bombings in her family's neighborhood and propagandizing at her school. To her parents' dismay, their daughter is as rebellious as ever. She buys Iron Maiden cassettes on the black market and flatly contradicts her teachers' homilies on the glories of martyrdom.
At 14, Marjane (now voiced by Deneuve's real-life daughter, Chiara Mastroianni) is sent away to high school in Vienna while her family remains in Iran. She finds an uneasy niche with a group of punk outcasts, but remains homesick and miserable. Her first love affair and its failure unroll in two back-to-back sequences with contrasting points of view: When they first meet, her boyfriend is an angelic genius who drives her home in a car borne aloft by sheer happiness. After they break up, he's a buck-toothed, pimple-faced cretin who picks his nose behind the wheel.
Marjane returns to Iran broke, depressed, and ill, done in, as she ironizes in voice-over, not by revolution, war, and exile, but by "a banal love story." She slowly claws her way out of depression (cue an aerobics montage to "Eye of the Tiger," sung gloriously off-key by Mastroianni) and falls in love again. But the theocratic police state has grown so oppressive that men and women can no longer be seen together out of doors. Marjane's beloved country has become a place drained of alcohol, dancing, music, sex—in short, the pleasure of being alive. She emigrates to France at the age of 24, exchanging her home, family, and history for a chance to become who she wants to be.
Persepolis will also be released in a dubbed English-language version, featuring the voices of Gena Rowlands, Sean Penn, and Iggy Pop(!), but if possible, try to catch it on-screen with the original French cast. The subtlety of the interplay among the three generations of women is extraordinary. Darrieux, who is 90, has played Deneuve's mother in multiple films throughout her 76-year-long movie career. She inhabits the pivotal role of the earthy, tart-tongued grandmother as completely as I've ever seen an actor do with an animated part. In the movie's opening and closing shots, the jasmine petals that the grandmother uses to perfume her bra flutter across the black screen like snowflakes. At once graphically bold and delicately nostalgic, the image is the perfect metaphor for the movie itself.