Sometimes a film’s central conceit can be far more interesting than the film itself.
Sometimes a film’s central conceit can be far more interesting than the film itself. In Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin, the big idea is to show not a piece of conventional narrative cinema, but rather the faces of an ensemble of Iranian actresses (and Juliette Binoche) as they watch such a film, registering joy, boredom, anxiety, revulsion and sadness in response to the unseen (but most definitely heard) events supposedly before their eyes – eyes that in fact just stare out at us as we also watch and reflect on what we ourselves can both see and hear.
This is hardly a new idea. Robert Altman did something similar in his segment of the portmanteau film Aria in 1987, re-imagining the Parisian debut of Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s opera 'Les Boréades', but turning his camera away from the performance itself and onto its decadent audience. Kiarostami himself has also played this game in Where Is My Romeo?, his contribution to the 2007 omnibus Chacun Son Cinéma, in which women are shown watching (an unseen) Romeo and Juliet.
Shirin essentially replays the same trick at much greater length, but changes the imagined film from a classic English romantic melodrama to a classic Iranian one by adapting Hakim Nezami Ganjavi’s famous twelfth-century poem about the tragic Armenian princess Shirin and her two star-cross’d lovers. In fact, Kiarostami picked this particular story only after he had completed filming the physiognomic variations of his seated cast, adding it as a vibrant soundtrack in post-production.
Still, he has chosen carefully – for this unseen film-within-a-film begins with a woman falling in love with an image, is full of references to mirrors, spectatorship and the gaze, and ends with the heroine asking her accompanying 'sisters' (a figure for the mostly female audience) if their tears are "for me, Shirin? Or for the Shirin who lives in all of you?" What is more, with the inset film, as with its audience, it is women who are foregrounded while men appear only on the margins.
The problem, though, is that for all the probing beauty of Kiarostami’s close-ups, for all the expressiveness of the performers, and for all the technical intricacy of the sound design, Shirin depends entirely on a concept which, though confrontational almost by definition, is better suited to a shorter duration. By the 20-minute mark, the viewer has got it – and from there on in, the film is just a pretty face (or several).
Kiarostami is the man (from Iran).
Beautiful faces, but not enough (narrative) legs to justify the length.
The women on screen are more absorbed by their viewing than you will be.