Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Cannes review of The Salesman

The latest from Asghar Farhadi sees another family put under stress after a violent attack.

Sat, May 21, 2016, 17:46




Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Starring Shahab Hoseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Baba Karimi, Farid Sajjadihosseini, Mina Sadaati, Maral Bani Adam, Mehdi Kooshki, Emad Emani

Cannes, in competition, 125 min

Accidents often lead to adjacent films in the Cannes programme exhibiting thematic similarities. This year we end with two pictures – Paul Verhoeven’s Elle and Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman — that deal with the search for retribution following sexually related assaults on women. I use that slightly couched phrase “sexually related” because, in the Iranian film, we never learn exactly what happened to Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). The buzzer goes in her new flat and, assuming her husband Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is at the door, she hits the button, flips the latch and makes for the bathroom. We later learn that the previous tenant “had many male companions” – an unambiguous euphemism for “prostitute” – and that the stranger is a client in search of action. Later, Rana is found in a bloody mess on the floor.

She remembers some, but not all, of what happened. Is that really true? We allow the possibility that Rana is unable to tell Emad the worst of what went on. At any rate, she becomes increasingly withdrawn and he becomes increasingly obsessed with tracking down the culprit. The film is, among Farhadi’s work, closest in spirit to his Oscar-winning A Separation. Both films feature an uncertain violent incident that plays a part in the fraying of a marriage. Beginning with a stunning, ominous scene in which nearby demolition work caused the couple’s previous flat to shake, shudder and crack in the corners, The Salesman is, like A Separation, concerned with the corrosive power of doubt. It exhibits the same degree of emotional honesty and trades in the same class of oblique internalised tension (the characters are winding themselves up inside as the facts fail to fall into comfortable positions). But the film is a little drier and more studied than A Separation. At times, it feels a bit like an extended academic exercise.

That impression is driven home by the interweaving of the core story with excerpts from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Rana and Emad are currently acting in a production of the play and that story of a very differently disturbed family comments in oblique fashion on the Iranian couple’s traumas. Rana is, unlike Willy Loman, not seen as a failure. His main job is as an apparently popular English teacher. But he has the same difficulties in doing the right thing by his family. His solution is to embark on some amateur detective work. This ultimately triggers one of the moral dilemmas in which Farhadi specialises.

The film is flawlessly acted. Ordinary-looking people pass through huge emotions without ever resulting to histrionics. Outbreaks of violence are rare and, thus, when they do occur, they are all the more shocking. If anything the film is, in its closing act, not quite enigmatic enough. Farhadi trades in the poetry of the unsaid, but, in the closing sections, The Salesman takes on the quality of an art-house hostage thriller. None of which is to suggest it could ever be confused with a Paul Verhoeven film.

Donald Clarke