Over the last decade or so, comic books, as a medium, have assumed a position of cultural legitimacy under the banner of the “graphic novel,” becoming a respectable, and commercially viable, form in which artists and writers can tell the stories they want to tell. Comics no longer have to be aimed at children, nor must they only concern the adventures of superheroes anymore; they can now be about ordinary people and ordinary life—just like ordinary novels.
The animated Persepolis marks the graphic novel’s transition to the world of movies; it’s not the first non-fantastical comic to be adapted to the big screen—the live-action Ghost World immediately pops to mind, as do A History of Violence and The Road to Perdition—but perhaps the first to be adapted, visually, from page to screen so faithfully. By retaining its source material’s black-and-white aesthetic simplicity, Persepolis plays like a comic book, er graphic novel, in motion, and not like a film merely “adapted from” one. Its origins are unabashedly conspicuous.
Not least of all in its fluidity, the animation, particularly that of two wormlike women who condemn our hero’s Michael Jackson button, vaguely recalls the Fleischer Bros., like a Betty Boop cartoon with a bit more verisimilitude in the character design. Its hand-drawn style, even if it doesn’t all look hand-drawn, is a welcome change of pace, no matter how stunning Pixar’s films are, from the turn to computers that’s dominating the animation industry. (Disney doesn’t even employ animators to animate by hand anymore!)
Unfortunately, the shallow depth of field of its two-dimensionality reflects the flatness of its story, which concerns one woman’s experiences growing up in Iran. Creator and co-writer/co-director Marjane Satrapi tells us her life story, first of herself as a young girl before the overthrow of the Shah, later as an adolescent during the country’s increasingly restrictive turn to Islamic rule, then her life abroad and finally back in Iran. (She now lives in Paris, though that creeps into the film only marginally.) Satrapi feels a stranger wherever she goes, not fitting in under the oppressive strictures of Iran nor adapting to the relative freedom of Austria, where it only takes simple boy problems—and, in fairness, some encounters with racism—to provoke her undoing. (The point being that shit sucks, albeit for different reasons, no matter where you go.)
Satrapi proves a sympathetic everywoman, even in her relatable moments of vanity and selfishness, but there’s nothing truly fresh, remarkable or provocative about her coming of age tale; the only aspect that provides any bit of distinction is that she’s Iranian, but that fact alone is not enough to raise the tale above the level of boilerplate misadventures in search of an identity. Added to what Noel Murray calls its “and then this happened” structure, Persepolis, despite its inventive and pleasing animation, drags on dully.
Not to mention that it’s uncomfortably conceited, not only in its reduction of the surrounding political turmoil to its effects on one woman—since we don’t meet many Iranians outside of her simplistically noble family, she doesn’t serve as much of a universal representation of a people; it is less the tale of Iran told through one woman than the tale of one self-absorbed woman incidentally set in Iran—but also in the very fact that she’s telling us her story at all. (And not least of all in the fact that she presents her young self as a prophet with a direct connection to God!) At root, Persepolis‘ narrative arc is as simple as this: Satrapi grew up, felt out of place everywhere, and eventually got over it, though not entirely; couldn’t anybody on the street tell a similar story? Oh, did I mention that it takes place in Iran, though?