Marjane Satrapi is one of those rare enigmas; a best-seller and Oscar-nominee, sure, but one who remains totally uncompromising in the face of global success.
Satrapi first came to attention with the release of Persepolis, an honest, funny and emotional graphic novel that detailed her early life as the daughter of outspoken Marxists in Iran during the conservative cultural revolution, her teenage years as an anarchist in Europe and her return to Iran as a mature, independent woman. The minimal, monochrome style of the drawing served to sharpen a story that delved fearlessly into issues of politics, morals, nationhood, womanhood and so much more.
The book, which was originally written in French and published five years after Satrapi had left Iran altogether, quickly found an audience. It was soon translated into English and went on to sell more than a million copies. A film adaption followed in 2007, which earned Satrapi a prize at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for best animated feature. Since then several more books and films, both animated and live- action, have appeared. The films have, unfortunately, only received limited releases in English-speaking cinemas. However, that could be set to change with The Voices.
This is an almost indescribable film, oscillating somewhere between horror, comedy and empathetic investigation of mental illness. It is written by Michael R Perry and directed by Satrapi, and stars Ryan Reynolds in the lead role of Jerry, a warehouse worker in a place called Milton, the distilled essence of small-town America.
Jerry, we soon learn, has some issues. These include his talking cat, Mr Whiskers, and dog, Bosco. His co-workers, including Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick, are unaware of his rather dark past and ongoing mental instability. Unaware, that is, until he stops taking his pills and starts to kill them. This is dark comedy enlivened by an aesthetic vitality (the pink uniforms, the neon signs in the rain), and a conflicted empathy for a disturbed serial killer.
No easy task
“In order to have empathy for a serial killer, which is really not an easy task to start with, you have to be in his mind, you have to be with him, you have to understand his reasons,” says Satrapi.
“The moment that Jerry takes his pill, you [the audience] have to be so much with him that you say, ‘No Jerry, don’t take those pills, let’s go back to this beautiful world we were in because everything here is so filthy, it’s full of dog and cat shit’. You have to be with him. You have to go with this and give him the permission not to take the pill. You become like him; you don’t want to take the pill either.”
Creating what Satrapi calls “this fantastic world of Jerry” required a career-best performance from Reynolds, whose all-American looks and history of terrible superhero movies seemed to make him an unlikely choice for the role. Satrapi maintains he is an underestimated talent.
"Even in a very bad movie like The Green Lantern, still there he managed to do something not so bad, and this, for me, is magic; you have to be a genius to get something not bad out of this film.
“The first thing was that he had exactly the same vision I had. He has this sort of boyish face and he can look kind of scary because he has these deep black eyes; he can look kind of freaky. At the same he has this juvenile, boyish smile that you would give him anything; you almost feel like he can stab you and it would be okay. He had the perfect physique and the perfect mind, and he’s extremely talented.”
The women in The Voices are just as surprising. They are a diverse bunch in age and image who refuse to conform to slasher-movie archetypes.
Far from voiceless victims, they put up good fights, and, even when deceased, remain active characters in the film, goading and teasing Jerry from inside his fridge.
Satrapi says the actors and crew constantly surprised her with their contributions, taking the film and the characters in directions she couldn’t have anticipated. This, she says, is why she prefers live- action movies to animated works.
“When I make an animation movie I have to play all the characters in front of the animator, and you know, I’m not Laurence Olivier, ” she says. “When you have great actors they take something and they bring it so much further than you can imagine. It happened many times in shooting, when I didn’t know how to finish a scene, and some of the actors would do something and I’m like, ‘Woah! That’s great’. I’m not any more, in this moment, the director of the movie; I become the spectator of the film and I love that.”
‘Sometimes the hero farts’
The most remarkable aspect of The Voices is its strange mixture of Hollywood sheen with a rare moral complexity. It never comes down on one side;
it refuses to cast anybody in stone. There are no judgment calls, just a patience that allows the different sides of each character to come through.
“I want the story to feel real,” says Satrapi. “It feels real if you show all these layers of the human being, because that is how you are made and I am made and how everybody else is made. We are not all the time in one way or another. That would be fake to do that, unrealistic. I create an unrealistic world in which realistic stories happen. In many films I have seen, you have a very realistic world in which very unrealistic stories happen. You have the hero and the hero is always right. But sometimes the hero farts too and we should not forget it.”
Like all of Satrapi's work to date, The Voices succeeds because of these subversions. Few artists working at Satrapi's level of fame have maintained such an unwillingness to dumb themselves down, to make things look and feel the way people expect them to, and this might well have hampered her chances of more Oscar nominations. Thankfully, as The Voices appears in cinemas after years of work, this seems the last thing on her mind.
“I was quite a punk when I was much younger and maybe something of this has remained with me. I don’t make films either to be famous or anything like that. I make films because that is what I like the most. It is what makes me happy; that is why I make them. I think a musician makes music because it makes him happy. It’s not to be known in this, or to shine on the red carpet. This is much more stress than happiness. Everyone wants to take a photo of you. You cannot even put your finger in your nose because then they will take a picture. Is that really what I want? No, but the luck in life to be able to live your passion: this is the biggest luck.
“For me, my red carpet of every day is to wake up and say, I can make my living out of what makes me happiest in the world. Would I exchange my happiness for the red carpet? Never. Over my dead body.”
The Voices is out now