By Simon Whitlock
Iranian-born French filmmaker Marjane Satrapi’s body of work in film could so far be counted on one hand, and one would still have a digit to spare. However, since her directing debut in 2007, Marjane Satrapi has built quite the reputation: she’s made one of the most important films of the twenty-first century so far, she’s helmed what might be this decade’s most underrated black comedy, and she’s currently at work on a major film about Marie Curie, one of the most significant scientists of the twentieth century.
Satrapi is most immediately associated with the animated film “Persepolis” (2007), which she co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud. “Persepolis”, based on her autobiographical graphic novels of the same name, is Satrapi’s own coming-of-age tale; the story chronicles her childhood and adolescent life in Iran of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how the societal role of Iranian women changed in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution.
Both “Persepolis” the film and the graphic novels made a great splash in popular culture on its release, and Satrapi’s debut feature was almost universally well-received by audiences and critics alike. However, this acclaim was not found in Satrapi’s native Iran. The Iranian government declared their objections to “Persepolis”’s inclusion in the 2007 Cannes Film Festival’s competition program, and Satrapi came under direct harassment from Iranian journalists whilst promoting her film.
“Persepolis” would go on to be the joint winner of Cannes’ Jury Prize that year, and it would later find itself in Academy Awards contention after having received a nod in the Animated Feature category at the 2008 Oscars. Victory in that category would ultimately go to Pixar’s Parisian-rat-chef drama “Ratatouille” (2007), and it would be another four years before the next Marjane Satrapi-directed film would see the light of day.
Satrapi’s sophomore effort, “Chicken with Plums/Poulet aux prunes” (2011) would be her first foray into live-action filmmaking, though the finished film lacks none of her debut feature’s visual flair. Again based on one of her graphic novels, and working once more with Vincent Paronnaud, “Chicken with Plums” charted the final days of an accomplished violinist whose instrument is destroyed in a fit of pique, loses the will to live when his quest for a new violin is rendered fruitless.
Like “Persepolis” before it, “Chicken with Plums” is a beautifully realized adaptation of the graphic novel source, and Satrapi’s writing is just as full of light-hearted humor and crushing darkness as it was for her 2007 debut.
The film would find itself in competition at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, but “Chicken with Plums” understandably struggled to reach the heights that Satrapi’s debut had enjoyed almost half a decade previously.
The early half of the 2010s saw the busiest creative period for Marjane Satrapi, as far as her directing career is concerned at least. Firstly, the aforementioned “Chicken with Plums”, followed a year later by “Gang of the Jotas” (2012), a fair-to-middling French-language comedy caper in which Satrapi herself would star alongside her husband Mattias Ripa. Two years later, Satrapi directed the American/German co-production “The Voices” (2014), her first English language film, starring Ryan Reynolds, Anna Kendrick, and Gemma Arterton.
“The Voices”, a dark comedy from a script by Michael R. Perry which had appeared on the 2009 Black List of best unproduced screenplays, tells the story of Jerry, a seemingly mild-mannered warehouse worker who suffers from a mental illness which causes him to suffer the delusion that his pet dog and cat, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers respectively, are talking to him. As the story unfolds and more is learned of Jerry’s abusive childhood, Jerry’s cat’s goading leads to him committing violent murders of his coworkers.
On the surface, this latest film can seem quite a departure from Marjane Satrapi’s usual fare. However, when looking at “The Voices” in the context of Satrapi’s filmography to date, there’s a clear through-line of characters who have been impacted by a great loss. Whether it’s her own loss of her country and ultimately her family as portrayed in “Persepolis”, or Nasser-Ali failing to move past the loss of his treasured violin, or Jerry’s violently arrested development as a child manifesting itself in hallucinating conversations with his pets in “The Voices”, it doesn’t require a lot of inference to suggest that Satrapi both identifies and sympathizes with the pain of a loss of something fundamental to her characters.
While it’s never great to speculate on films that haven’t yet been released, it doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch to suggest that Marjane Satrapi’s upcoming film “Radioactive”, a biopic charting the lives and careers of Marie and Pierre Curie, will continue to explore that theme of profound loss. Provided it makes its first appearances this year, “Radioactive” is set to be Satrapi’s first film after a five year gap, the longest wait between her features so far.
Whenever it’s ready for release, there’s no doubt that “Radioactive” will herald a welcome return to one of world cinema’s finest filmmakers, and a defining creative voice of the twenty-first century.