Persepolis Finds Love in the Afternoon

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Sony Pictures Classics


The formal-dress official screenings at Cannes take place in the evening. Only a few "minor" films in competition for the Palme d'Or get their showings in the afternoon. But even on a hot May day, when a good movie connects with the audience, the vibe can still be triumphant.

Persepolis had its world premiere today at 4 p.m. And at the end of the film, cheers and applause rang through the Palais; the rhythmic clapping that is Cannes' way of saying "bravo" lasted for more than 15 minutes as Marjane Satrapi, the movie's Iranian-born director, was bathed in love and tears. She received hugs and congratulations from Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni (both in the film), and from two proud folks who looked like Satrapi's parents, as the huzzahs continued. The crowd was paying tribute not only to a funny, sometimes dark, always affecting story of surviving the worst through a sense of humor, but to Satrapi herself — for being not only the creator of this beguiling film but for having put her own life on screen. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Persepolis is that rare hybrid: an autobiographical animated feature. Based on Satrapi's four graphic novels, published in France beginning in 2000, the movie is a very personal, painful and somehow larkish retelling of her growing up Iranian under the repressive regime of the Shah (she was nine when he was overthrown), then under the even more brutal and soul-grinding Islamic Republic, before she emigrated to Europe as a student. She spends time back in Tehran with her family, and getting married, finally coming to rest in Paris, where she launched a career translating her and her family's pleasures and perils into comic-book form.

Marjane, or Marji in her youth, is a bright, somewhat mouthy kid with a restless imagination and the twin gifts of self-criticism and resilience; she can be knocked down, but never counts herself out. Among her relatives are some whose resistance to the Peacock Throne had led to their confinement and torture. When the clerics take over, Marji shows her defiance in ways both adolescent and forthright. She'll buy an Iron Maiden CD on the black market, and in school she tells her black-scarved teacher, "We've gone from 3,000 [political] prisoners under the Shah to 300,000 under you." The film tracks Marjane's growing pains (shown literally, with body parts expanding in a split second), her love affairs with creepy or cheating Austrians, her emotional breakdowns.

Working with co-director Vincent Paronnaud (the celebrated comix artist known as Winshluss), Satrapi finds a simple, supple, almost monochrome visual style that allows the heroine's distinct voice and raucous wit. Even when the story turns from Iranian political melodrama into more familiar coming-of-age territory, Persepolis never loses its momentum, its sustaining sense of fun or its rapturous hold on the viewer.

The voices in the film's original French version are provided by Mastroianni, Deneuve and that goddess of 30s and 40s French cinema, Danielle Darrieux (as the grandmother). Other celebrities will voice the characters when Persepolis opens in the U.S. The reception is likely to be warm there — but will Satrapi ever experience anything like the epiphany of that first response to her film, one afternoon in Cannes?