Film of the Week: Closed Curtain
A reassuring article of faith has it that political repression tends to have a salutary effect on art. The classic piece of evidence often cited is the imaginative energy of writers in Stalinist Russia—one of whom, Mikhail Bulgakov, provided in his novel The Master and Margarita a defiant motto for the impossibility of stifling creativity: “Manuscripts don’t burn.” Those three words last year became the title of a clandestinely produced drama by Mohammad Rasoulof, a director who had been arrested in 2010 by the Iranian government, at the same time as his better-known compatriot Jafar Panahi. Manuscripts Don’t Burn, premiered in Cannes last year, was a prime example of the limits of the optimistic tenet quoted above. An exposé of the Iranian government’s systematic victimization of artists and intellectuals, this sometimes laborious Costa-Gavras–like conspiracy thriller was not, by usual criteria, an artistically successful film—but it was indisputably an important one given its content, and given the courage of Rasoulof and his necessarily anonymous collaborators in getting the thing made and exhibited.
A more awkward illustration of the limitations of such resistant or samizdat cinema is Closed Curtain by Jafar Panahi, which debuted in Berlin in 2013. This is Panahi’s second film made behind closed doors. Since 2010, he has been sentenced to six years in prison, placed under house arrest, and banned from making films for 20 years—a ban that, according to the evidence of the work he’s made while defying this ruling, apparently extends even to picking up a camcorder. Panahi’s This Is Not a Film (12) brilliantly explores his experience of house arrest in his Tehran apartment, using his predicament to fuel a self-reflexive inquiry—at once political, philosophical and personal—into what a film actually is, and what it means to prevent someone from filming when that is their profession and their natural activity. (In the film, co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, training his camera on Panahi, comments: “When hairdressers have nothing to do, they cut each other’s hair.”).
Famously smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden in a cake, This Is Not a Film has achieved a totemic status as a contemporary dissident text, but the important factors were its urgency, its cogency, and its undimmed intellectual energy in defiance of despair. In Panahi’s follow-up, however, despair is arguably winning the upper hand, and the undoubted importance of Closed Curtain may unfortunately lie in its hard diagnosis—its suggestion that, left to rely only on his will and his imagination, even a master filmmaker, and an irrepressible-willed individual, may find himself caving in.
Closed Curtain is bookended—“curtained,” if you like—by two brilliant matching long takes that present the central metaphor in no-frills formal terms. The film begins with a frontal shot of a wide picture window looking out on a house’s front yard, a road behind it, and beyond that, an expanse of sea. A metal security grille is drawn across the window, as if across the movie screen, partly obscuring our view. A man gets out of a taxi, walks towards the house, and enters by a side door—but instead of drawing aside the grille, he blocks the viewer in even further by drawing a pair of curtains across the window. The image of the window, and the curtailed view of the outside world, returns at the very end—and if the film had consisted entirely of such shots, Panahi might have been onto something rigorously marvelous. It’s what comes in between that’s the problem.
The film’s first 18 or so minutes are intriguing. The unnamed man, played by Closed Curtain’s co-director and co-writer Kambuzia Partovi (a director in his own right, and writer of Panahi’s The Circle) closes all the curtains in the large house, adding heavy blackout drapes to the lighter hangings already in place. Another metaphorically potent shot early on has him and his pet dog, Boy, sitting together facing a curtained window that irresistibly suggests a cinema screen forcibly darkened. With his curtains, the man (a writer, we later learn) is both protecting himself from the outside world and making himself a prisoner; he also builds a secret hiding place that’s like a self-made prison within a prison. There’s an explanation for all this: Iran, a TV broadcast reveals, has banned dogs as pets, as Islam regards them as impure; caught with his pet, the Writer has tangled with police, and is now hiding out along with his dog.
All this seems eloquently clear-cut as metaphor: it’s surely inhumane to keep a dog locked indoors, but then that’s precisely what the Iranian government has been doing to many of its human subjects. In fact, it isn’t just metaphor: dogs have indeed been banned as pets in Iran, and owners have had their animals seized by police. But some 20 minutes into the film, things start getting cluttered: a young man and woman, apparently brother and sister, mysteriously appear in the house and claim to be on the run, having attended an illicit party. The man (Hadi Saeedi) leaves to get help, but warns the Writer that his sister—who we later learn is called Melika (Maryam Moghadam)—is suicidal. The next section is a testy duel of patience between the Writer, who desperately wants to be left alone, and the Woman, who repeatedly taunts him, not least about the script he’s apparently trying to write (and which may be the script of the film that we’re actually watching, composing itself on screen as we go along). The Writer suspects that the Woman is a spy, or a reporter who’s exposed him, while we suspect that she’s a figment of his imagination, conceivably a muse out to spur his imagination—or conversely a sort of anti-muse, preventing him from even thinking. “You are desperation itself,” he tells her. “Seeing you dries me up.”
Things get more complicated; the Woman disappears, and the Writer shoots a first-person video on his iPhone, trying to figure out how she got into the house in the first place. Then, about an hour in, Jafar Panahi himself wanders into shot, and things really start to fall apart. Panahi rather heavy-handedly informs us that we’ve wandered into a hall of mirrors when he pulls back a drape and reveals a wall covered in framed posters for his own films—back to front, because we’re literally gazing into a mirror. It turns out that we’re in the director’s own villa by the Caspian Sea, and the filmmaker wanders around glumly and at first silently, while the Writer and the Woman pass in and out of the action like ghosts unseen by Panahi; now, apparently, they’re his figments.
At one point the Woman tells the Writer that killing yourself is a better option than living behind closed curtains, and indeed, suicide seems to tempt Panahi. At one point he stands on his balcony, watching himself wading head-deep into the sea—only for the shot to reverse as he emerges backwards out of the waves (the old “rewind” chestnut, which surely had its defining last word in Funny Games). Talk about mirrors reflecting mirrors: not only does the Woman leave her own iPhone video for Panahi to mull over, but the Writer’s video is then restaged—only this time with Panahi himself and a minimal crew filming the Writer. By this stage, the film has skipped between too many self-reflexive levels for much coherence or meaning to survive—something that was never an issue in the complex but bracingly immediate This is Not a Film. Near the end, an elderly neighbor of Panahi’s—very probably an actual neighbor rather than an actor—reassures the director: “Things will get better, you’ll be able to work again,” adding, “There’s more to life than work.” As if in acceptance of that, the final shot shows Panahi leaving the house, getting in his car and driving off, pausing only to pick up the Writer (or the real Partovi) and his dog.
It’s a satisfying ending to a largely unsatisfying film. In Berlin, some viewers felt that Closed Curtain was an own goal for Panahi: having vividly represented his plight, and that of other Iranian artists, by depicting his house arrest in his Tehran apartment, he was surely testing our sympathy by showing us his very comfortable neo-rustic villa, with its charming views on either side. That’s a frivolous response, of course: internal exile is internal exile, however sumptuous the cell. The real message of Closed Curtain is that Panahi’s will and inspiration seem to be cracking: in a recent interview in Filmmaker magazine, he commented: “Now I feel isolated and can’t work the way I used to work. So I resorted to my imagination and whatever happened, it just happens in my imagination . . . I feel sometimes I’m the prisoner of my own thoughts . . . I’m being forced to internalize everything, and nothing can really manifest itself the way it used to.”
A realist with a vital social curiosity, Panahi has previously thrived exploring the outside world and the energies of both individuals (The White Balloon, 95; Crimson Gold, 03) and groups (The Circle, 00; Offside, 06). Clearly, internalization can take him only so far. This Is Not a Film is superb, but Closed Curtain shows his inspiration unraveling when it’s required to feed on itself: it wouldn’t be too cruel to retitle it This Is Barely A Film. Still, the value of Closed Curtain is the very ineloquence of its cri de coeur. Where its predecessor defiantly showed that Panahi could take it, here the stresses show: they’re tearing him apart, and it shouldn’t happen to any artist.