by Carl Pierer
Arthur Miller's famous dissection of the American Dream in his Death of a Salesman still stands as a hallmark of American literature that has not lost any of its appeal. Its striking and damning socio-politico commentary continues to be of relevance. There is, however, a second, more intimate and personal drama that takes place between the two main characters, Willy and Linda Loman. The Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, well-known for his calm and minimalist depiction of domestic drama in such films as A Separation and The Past, transposes the play to an Iranian setting and thereby allows for a new perspective on Miller's play. Farhadi's unexcited narrative style gives much room to the interior life of his characters, creating a suspense that entirely draws from the psychological development of the protagonists. With his new film The Salesman, Farhadi continues to explore the subtle mechanics of a fractured relationship.
The film opens with for Farhadi unusually blunt symbolism: At night, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) have to rush to evacuate their Teheran apartment, for an immediate collapse of the building is feared. In this opening scene already, the dynamic of the couple's relationship is manifest. Emad is shown as caring and sympathetic, carrying their bedridden neighbour to safety and making sure that everyone gets out of the building all right. Rana, in the meantime, is not shown to participate actively in the hubbub.
Although the building eventually does not crumble, it is clear that the main couple's home has become unsafe to live in, the cracks in the wall standing for the cracks in their relationship. Emad and Rana are actors, and their group is rehearsing Miller's Death of a Salesman. When another actor offers to let them stay at one of his apartments, the couple is only too glad to accept. But the new place does not provide the fresh start they were hoping for. Something already seems to be odd when the previous tenant, despite multiple calls from the landlord, refuses to pick up her remaining boxes. Nonetheless, Emad and Rana make an effort to make their new home. Soon, however, the events take a turn for the darker. One evening, Rana, home alone, buzzes open the door unsuspectingly thinking it is Emad.
When Emad returns later that evening, he discovers bloodstains leading up to their apartment. Unable to find Rana anywhere, he is informed by the neighbours that Rana was attacked in the shower by an intruder, and rushed to the hospital. He arrives there only when she has already received treatment. The wounds are not serious, and the doctors predict that Rana will soon be fine.
Only that she is not. This completely random act of violence, without any justification or objective, leaves its traces. Rana is frightened and withdraws. Not wanting to be alone, she desires Emad to be close, to care for her, yet at the same time she also wants to be left alone. And this gets to Emad. Wanting to help her, to comfort and support her, he does not know how to provide the support she needs. Her, from his point of view, ‘female' irrationality and her contradictory demands frustrate his desire to care for her. Not able to protect her, and incapable of understanding her, he grows impatient.
Farhadi takes his time to develop Emad's growing frustration with Rana's emotional withdrawal, which sees him turn from sympathy and understanding for others to an obsession with revenge. Farhadi shows this change with minimal excitation, but all the more accurately. There is little dialogue and each line seems to have been chosen with great care, every conversation between them seems to alienate them further.
At the same time, Emad is trying to find the perpetrator. But his investigations are mostly stuck, pushed along more by luck than anything else. When he stumbles over the culprit as if by accident, his identity suddenly does not seem to matter anymore. At this point, it is no longer a question of who has done or even the reason for the attack. It is now about what Emad is going to do with the knowledge once he has found the attacker. While the violence of the deed justifies Emad's anger at the culprit, and while he is in a position to get revenge, this does not feel good. Unlike such films as Die Hard, where the viewer relishes in the final violent punishment of the antagonist, there is a strong incongruity here between the justified anger and the impotence of vengeance.
Farhadi's film explores skilfully this almost metaphysical complexity of revenge. It becomes clear that Emad's anger is not directed at the perpetrator, but rather at Rana. He is enraged by her withdrawal and his failure to live up to the chivalrous ideal he set for himself and in getting back at the attacker, he really is getting back at her. Rana does not seek revenge herself and dislikes how Emad has changed. It is as much about Rana's way of coping as it is about Emad's, and the film portrays how Emad's frustration is ultimately a consequence of his gallant ideal, which precludes female agency.
All the while the drama is unfolding, the action is interwoven with the characters performance of Miller's play. Whilst the story already provides certain points of identification (Emad plays Willy Loman and Rana his wife Linda), most of the parallels between the play and the film are subtle. The connection does not feel forced, if anything it is rather obscure for the most part. Yet, in the end, all the strands come together and, in a harmonious composition, we find Farhadi affording as much of a new perspective, as he meticulous uncovers the intricacy of the male gaze.
Alidoosti's performance captures magnificently her character's torment of fright and powerlessness, convincingly inspiring Emad's transformation and his complex anger. Hosseini's superbly acted Emad is chivalrous and gallant, but ultimately driven to cruelty by his loss of control. Together with Farhadi's intimate staging, his minimalist style and calm development, this makes The Salesman an intense and haunting psychological domestic drama.