Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel/memoir of growing up in revolutionary Iran is interesting in its contradictions. Part of the appeal, for Western readers, is how identifiable young Marjane is, with her love of Bruce Lee and Iron Maiden and other icons of American pop culture. She’s a normal, impish little kid. We feel we know her. Yet a central theme of the memoir, particularly the second volume, is how Marjane herself doesn’t feel as integrated in our culture as we imagine her. Attending school in Europe, she feels isolated, the classic stranger in a strange land. She detests our tendency to see her as “exotic.” She resists our inclination to adopt her. Marjane’s coming-of-age story is largely about coming to terms with her identity as someone apart from us.
The film adaptation of Satrapi’s memoir (written and directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Satrapi herself) preserves that conflicted push-pull quality and virtually everything else about the acclaimed work, from Marjane’s distinct voice to the episodic storytelling to the almost cartoonishly simple black-and-white aesthetic. The result is idiosyncratic but powerful, a reminder of just how versatile and compelling animation can be.
For me, part of appreciating Persepolis is reconciling myself to what the memoir is and isn’t. Satrapi hews closely to the perspective of her younger self, so although Marjane’s parents, uncle, and grandmother sometimes explain what is happening to the little girl, the information is given at a child’s level. That frustrates me sometimes. I want to know more about the different factions, the history of the country, the context, but that kind of explanation is rarely forthcoming. What’s more, Marjane’s parents send her to Europe just when the repression under the Ayatollah becomes particularly severe—good for Marjane, of course (at least at first blush), but I’ve been to Europe. Part of me wants Marjane’s story to stay in Iran.
But Persepolis isn’t the story of a nation; it’s the story of one girl. Satrapi doesn’t try to turn her memoir into a history textbook or a scholarly essay, and that’s to her credit. By refusing to cloud her protagonist’s perspective with hindsight or information she could not known, she keeps the narrative voice pure. Beautifully observant, she immersing us in Marjane’s experience, little details like the smell of the jasmine blooms her grandmother wears under her clothes, or the sight of two black-robed women looming over her younger defiant self, or the feel of pushing a hijab back, past the hairline, when the soldiers turn away.
The hyperstylized animation also helps reinforce how personal the movie is—not a documentary but the revived memories of one individual. The simple, deceptively childlike drawings are quite expressive, as well, dramatizing not just how people look but how Marjane feels about them. That pair of angry, black-robed women, for example, are drawn like two inky vipers, almost formless, their ugly, accusatory faces their only feature. Later, when Marjane dates a boy in Europe and the relationship ends badly, the movie first presents him as a golden Adonis, as seen through the besotted teenager’s eyes, and then—to amusing and poignant effect—as a repulsive troll post-break-up.
But perhaps most poignant is how Marjane shows us how she and her friends and family were willing to risk terrible danger to get together for a party, to hang out with people of the opposite sex, to have a few drinks and laughs. I admit I was appalled at first: if they’re risking so much to meet, shouldn’t they be, I don’t know, fomenting an insurrection or something? But Satrapi’s depiction of how truly demoralizing real repression can be is so persuasive and frightening that after a while, it starts to make sense. In that environment, just having fun is insurrection, and what’s more, it’s necessary to keep from going crazy. Not that there aren’t more traditional, active heroes—Marjane’s martyred uncle Anouche is the most notable example—but as much as Persepolis mourns for him, it mourns, too, for the ordinary, not-particularly-political people who just want to live their lives freely and in peace. Maybe the attention to those people is what’s most valuable about this kind of memoir. History books tell you about the Anouches of the world; it takes something more intimate to show you everyone else.