The 2016 Cannes Film Festival closed with screenings of Asghar Farhadi’s Forushande (The Salesman, 2016) and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016), which were both competing for the Palme d’Or. The pairing of these films was jarring, if strangely appropriate, because the inciting incident in both of these films is a sexual assault perpetrated by an intruder. Farhadi and Verhoeven draw equally Hitchcockian takes on revenge stories, but the results express very different world views of shame and retaliation. In their divergent intentions, these movies tell us a great deal about the moral crises of our times.1
Elle and The Salesman depict unstable, invasive, and dangerous worlds. Their characters do not feel safe, and their privacy is under constant attack. Relationships are volatile. Masculinity rules from a place of entitlement; women are vulnerable. In Elle, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), an intruder who is actually Michèle’s (Isabelle Huppert) next-door neighbour, easily breaks into her house and rapes her. We also learn that Michèle’s father was an infamous serial killer in the 1970s, responsible for the deaths of many children in the neighbourhood. Michèle herself has gained unwitting public notoriety because of her father. In The Salesman, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) have to evacuate their home because construction next door has damaged the foundation of their apartment complex. In their new place, Rana is attacked in the shower by an intruder, a gentleman calling on the former tenant – a single mother who relies on the favors of her male clients. Further to this central assault, in another scene, a woman in the backseat of a taxi complains about Emad sitting next to her, and wants to change seats with the young man in the front. Later, Emad tells the young man that something bad must have happened to the woman in the past for her to feel so threatened. What is notable in these narratives is that in both films, the victim does not go to the police and cannot rely on the system: They take the law into their own hands, becoming both the judge and executioner.
Both films are critical of the middle class and their artistic community, but they portray very different societies. Elle, based on Philippe Djian’s French novel Oh… (2012), presents a postmodern world of simulacrums, emotional ambiguity, and moral relativism. Hyperreal images, whether of a haunted half-naked young Michele on TV or her face superimposed on a character in a video game, determine and govern lives. Michèle, head of a leading video game company, is living in a capitalist city that breeds desire and selfishness; Paris 2 is governed by Freudian id. Everyone is trying to get what he or she wants without guilt. In this bourgeois society, everything is permissible as long as the parties agree and don’t trespass on private property. As in the video games Michèle’s company makes, the plot is driven by sexual fantasy, fetishism, and violence. This world is shameless, for, as Michèle says, “Shame is not a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all.”
In Elle, narcissism, exhibitionism, and voyeurism – the Janus face of shame – define character behaviors. What matters in this milieu is ambition and selfishness. Michèle masturbates while watching, through binoculars, Patrick setting up a nativity scene with his wife. Patrick, the polite and handsome husband next door, is also the rapist, who is only sexually satisfied through violence, and after her rape, Michèle starts a sadomasochistic affair with him. She is also having an affair with her best friend Anna’s husband and admits to him: “Your stupidity was what first attracted me.” When Anna (Anna Consigny) asks her why she had the affair, Michèle simply says, “I wanted to get laid.” Power plays and lust dominates relationships. Michèle’s narcissistic botoxed mother entertains and displays her young gigolo. Michèle’s literary ex-husband is having a relationship with a much younger woman, who has mistaken him for a different author she admires. In this libertine and perverse reality, religion, as super-ego, is a corrupt and self-serving pretense. Patrick’s devout and devoted wife knows about what he is doing and is glad Michèle has been able to satisfy him – “for a time, at least”. Michèle father, also a practicing Catholic, starts his killing spree after some parents asked him to stop blessing their children by marking the sign of the cross on their foreheads before they go to school.
Unlike Elle, which reimagines the obscured opening rape scene in graphic flashbacks, The Salesman never reveals what occurred in the shower. In fact, what happened, though a terrible offense, probably was not legally rape. The lascivious old man may have tried to grope the naked Rana and, after her horrified and violent reaction, quickly rushed away. Sexual fantasies and deviance are not the subject of Farhadi’s film. The Salesman focuses more intently on the moral and ethical crisis that exists within the society. There are none of the far-fetched deviant twists and turns of Elle. In fact, compared with Farhadi’s complex masterpieces Darbareye Elly (About Elly, 2009) and Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (A Separation, 2011), the plot of The Salesman, which broke the all-time box office record in Iran, is rather simple.
Farhadi presents a Tehran struggling with modernity and a middle class that is trying to keep its head above water while searching for its identity. Unlike Michèle, who owns a nice house, Emad and Rana are apartment renters. Emad says about the city: “We ought to take a bulldozer, knock this whole thing down, and start over.” His friend, in a response that echoes recent Iranian history, says, “We already did that, and this is what we got.” Instead of postmodern video games and simulated images, The Salesman looks to a classic modernist play: scenes from a community theatre production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) are intertwined into the narrative. The American dream and the past weigh on the characters in Miller’s play the way patriarchy and tradition burden the characters in The Salesman.
Emad and Rana, in contrast with Michèle and her best friend, are not involved with the arts for profit. Theatre allows them to be part of the modern artistic and intellectual community in Tehran. Yet Emad, a progressive high school teacher of literature, responds to his wife’s sexual assault with the traditional creeds of dishonour and revenge. He doesn’t even register that the character Willy Loman, who he is playing in Death of a Salesman, shares the traits of Naser (Farid Sajjadi Hosseini), the man who attacked his wife. It is as if he is only performing as a modern man of culture. Art and literature do not bring about the empathy or understanding that Miller wanted for a tragic person like Willy.
Farhadi also references the Iranian modernist writer Gholam-Hosayn Sa’edi’s Azadaran-e Bayal (The Mourners of Bayal, 1964), which is the source of Dariush Mehrjui’s landmark film Gaav (The Cow, 1969). Both The Cow and Death of a Salesman are about the mental breakdown of a tragic hero who has lost touch with reality; under social pressure, the hero turns deeper into his own imagery world. Moreover, the change of Emad into a traditional masculine tough guy – similar to heroes of classic Iranian films such as Masud Kimiai’s Qaisar (1969) – can be compared with the transformation of the characters named Islam and Masht Hassan in The Cow. When one of his students asks how Masht Hassan can turn into a cow, Emad replies, “Gradually.” There is also a nod to Ingmar Bergman’s Skammen (Shame, 1968) with a poster of the film behind other frames in Emad and Rana’s emptied apartment.
In The Salesman, shame and honour are strong traditional values that have not found their place in the modern world. The marriage of Rana and Emad begins to break down under the pressure of these emotions. Emad wants to go to the police, but Rana feels uncomfortable explaining what happened. She does not even want to talk to Emad about it. Instead of focusing on her needs, Emad is concerned with Naser the attacker. For example, when he finds out that dinner has been made with the money Naser had left behind for the former tenant, Emad stops everyone from eating and throws away what he now considers contaminated food, rather than considering Rana’s effort in making the meal and trying to forget and start over. Emad goes in search of Naser. Typical of a man in a patriarchal society, he sees the attack as a personal violation, a grave dishonour to which he must react.
Characters in The Salesman continue to do wrong and to carry secrets and lies, hoping they will not be caught and exposed. Naser lies about his adulterous relationship. Babak (Babak Karimi), who found Rana and Emad the apartment, avoids mentioning the last tenant and his relationship with her. Kinship and community ties matter, but they are not working well: Friends and neighbours are polite to one another, but talk behind each other’s back. The film also highlights the disintegration of the Iranian society’s distinction between what occurs privately inside the home (or behind the veil) and what is seen in the public (or how people want to be seen).
Farhadi, in a Q&A at UCLA (13 November 2016), talked about two sides of aberu (“honour”), which is the public image we want others to have of us3. He says aberu can be a good moral incentive when it makes a person do the right thing for one’s public image; it guards us from doing immoral acts. But when that public image becomes our only goal, we will do anything for it: we will lie and do harm to keep it intact. Farhadi gives us a world where this sense of honour and humiliation, like the superego, governs people’s lives but doesn’t always play a positive role. Instead, it leads to lies and deception or anger and vengeance. Nonetheless, unlike Verhoeven, Farhadi still believes that shame and honour can play a positive and effective role in guiding characters like Naser to do the right thing.
The term “shame” probably comes from the Proto-Indo-European word *kem-, meaning “to cover”. It is a quality which may regulate social relationships and emotions. We can feel ashamed due to some perceived indignity, alienation, defeat, or violation. Shame is also closely tied to guilt, which is often seen as a personal moral experience, while shame is a public experience of being judged by others. Shame may be experienced in either a negative, oppressive form, or as producing a positive, desirable quality. In the Greek, there is, for example, aiskhyne, meaning “disgrace” and “dishonour”, and aidos, meaning “modesty” and “bashfulness”4. In the West, and elaborated on in the writings of thinkers like Freud and Nietzsche, shame is seen as a form of repression – a negative lower-type primitive emotion that hinders the freedom of the individual. It makes us vulnerable and controls our relationships. It can also make us lie and hurt others. Honour killing is one example of the terrible consequences of shame. But as with aberu, shame can also be a force for good. It connects us to the community and builds kinship and intersubjectivity, making us feel responsible for others. It can be a defense mechanism against inappropriate behaviors and purely selfish impulses.
Shame is also about being seen, and the self-consciousness that this engenders: We appear not as who we want to be or believe we are. The other’s judgment turns one into a fixed object of the gaze. Jacques Lacan, in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, argues that “the gaze is this object lost and suddenly refound in the conflagration of shame, by the introduction of the other” (182)5. Our physical presence in front of another exposes and betrays us, the way Adam and Eve found themselves naked and ashamed. We become the “subject” in both meanings of the word, as an agent and as object of the gaze. But how do the seer and the seen respond to the experience? What does one do with the awareness and the self-consciousness? Does the other become an “it” or a “thou”, in Martin Buber’s terms? Does it lead to compassion and understanding, or to retribution and hatred?
Both Elle and The Salesman are replete with the gaze of shame. Having been publicly dishonoured in the media for her association with her father’s atrocities, Michèle has grown up with shame. But it hasn’t stopped her from doing what she wants – if anything, it’s fueled her resistance, anger, and need for revenge. Michèle refuses to see or be seen by her father, who has been in jail all these years, and when she finally decides to go see him, she discovers that he has hanged himself. She believes he has done this because he could not face the humiliation of being seen by her. In another sequence, a disturbing video of Michèle’s face on a CGI animation of a women being raped by a monster is emailed to all the employees of her video game company. Michèle doesn’t respond with shame. To regain control, in a review session of the video game with the male programmers, she demands that the rape scene be even more realistic. She insists, “The orgasmic convulsions are way too timid.” Michèle also humiliates the young and infatuated developer who made the video by having him expose his penis to her. Patrick, the rapist, also hides his face behind a ski mask, afraid of being seen and shamed. Even when Michèle knows his identity, he still returns in a last sexual assault with the mask on.
In The Salesman, the fear of humiliation and dishonour burdens lives. Since the bond of family and community are still strong, public shaming in front of the community or close kin becomes a great punishment. Rana feels ashamed that her naked body was seen and touched by the intruder and later by the neighbour who takes her to the hospital. Emad becomes judgmental and sees various forms of sexual conduct, from assault and adultery to watching porn, as immoral and censurable. His answer is a forced public confession in front of others. When he sees what appear as pornographic images on the cell phone of one of his students, Emad demands to call his father and show him. Once Emad finds out this father – the one who is to reinforce morality and law – is dead, he returns the phone and forgets about the punishment. Emad wants Naser the trespasser to also confess to his family about what he has done, and about his illicit relationship with the former tenant. The possibility of such humiliation is so devastating that Naser collapses and is taken to the hospital. We never find out if he survives. In a scene from Death of a Salesman acted out in the movie, Willy Loman is also ashamed of having been seen with a prostitute by his son. In both Elle and The Salesman, characters are avoiding the gaze of shame. But while Elle tries to show the ineffectiveness of shame by focusing instead on power, narcissism, and greed, The Salesman tries to underline its power and understand the complex role it plays in people’s lives.
The protagonists of the two movies respond differently to shame. In Elle, Patrick knows that he is doing the wrong thing, but it does not stop him from raping women. Post-feminist Michèle goes from fascination and infatuation to revenge. She confronts Patrick: “You don’t expect to get away with what you did to me?” Her objection seems to be that it was not consensual. Revenge is, of course, a classic trope of cinema. What makes it unique in Elle, however, is the woman’s agency. Michèle turns shame, which is often seen as a subordinate feminine emotion, into anger and revenge, which are usually seen as dominant masculine responses. Both in the video game and in Michèle’s story, after many scenes of male sexual abuse and violence, we are given an image of a triumphant woman. In the game, a warrior woman is reborn and rises out of an illuminated vaginal orifice. In the movie, Michèle scripts a scene where her son (another man) kills Patrick while he is again trying to rape her. By killing the rapist, she actually does what the society has not done to her father, who committed even more terrible crimes. Some critics praise Elle as a story of a woman’s perseverance and empowerment against misogyny and abuse. Eric Kohn in Indiewire even calls it a “lighthearted rape-revenge story”6. But Michèle is dependent on men for making and buying of her videos. She has to enlist her son to exact her revenge. In other words, she relies on men for income, sex, security, and retribution. Is she a model for a liberated and strong woman? In this macabre and twisted tale of sexual perversion and violence, personal revenge and murder are a clichéd and problematic solution.
Rana, in The Salesman, responds to the attack by going through the typical psychological stages of shock and denial. In contrast to Elle, there is no confusing pain with pleasure. She finally seems to accept her shame and doesn’t care for revenge. In fact, she wants to forget about the incident and even has a sense of compassion for the perpetrator and his family. Unfortunately, like the wife of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman – the role Rana plays in the theatre opposite Emad – Rana’s character is not fleshed out. We don’t have a strong and multi-dimensional female character. What she is going through happens inside her and we don’t get much access to it. Farhadi is more interested in Emad, who can’t forget and, like Michèle, wants retribution. He gradually turns from a progressive modern intellectual into the traditional Iranian tough guy. Yet unlike the tough guys of popular Iranian classic films like Qaisar, he doesn’t plan to kill. Emad wants to know why the trespasser Naser has done what he did, and to humiliate him. After all, the power of shame should have stopped Naser in the first place. Farhadi tries to look beyond the cycle of revenge and the traditional violent responses like honour killing. By deciding on an older working-class father, who walks into the situation by accident, as the perpetrator of assault, Farhadi also makes the viewer and Emad stop and rethink the purpose of retribution. He questions if violence or destroying other lives is the best response to shame and dishonour. Rana stands against humiliating and wrecking others’ private lives. She tells Emad that if he forces Naser to confess in front his family, she is through with him. Farhadi wants us to recognize the consequence of our judgements and reactions. For example, how is shaming Naser good for his wife, who loves her husband and imagines he is a good person?
As with many recent Iranian films, we are left with more questions than answers. In the last haunting scene, Emad and Rana look vacantly at their dressing-room mirror as they are being made up backstage. The way the film is edited, it is as if they are facing each other, staring at the horizon of their lives that has fundamentally changed. Befitting his postmodern approach, Verhoeven gives us a darkly sardonic comedy. Elle ends happily with Michèle and her best friend Anna reconciled while they walk through the graveyard where the remains of Michèle’s parents are kept. Anna, having thrown out her husband, is planning to move in with Michèle for a while. They have taken charge, buried the past, and are walking out empowered into the future. Farhadi delivers a modern tragedy, where the past and its traditions and customs still weigh on the present. Characters have to gain greater ethical consciousness. Self-awareness, compassion, and understanding of the true values of tradition and modernity are needed to usher in a better age.
- Cristian Mungiu’s Bacalaureat (Graduation, 2016), also competed for the 2016 Palme d’Or at Cannes, similarly deals with sexual assault. But it provides a uniquely different outlook on the issues discussed here – one that is from post-communist Romanian perspective. In the film, the assault leaves its permanent impact but recedes in focus given the volatile, dangerous, and corrupt society in which it happened. Romeo, the father of the assaulted daughter, intends to get his daughter to leave the country and go to England. The assault becomes a turning point: Romeo must go against his beliefs and get involved in illegal activities to get her out. Graduation captures the moral breakdown of the society. ↩
- Though Djian’s book is set in France, Verhoeven wanted to make an American movie. But no American wanted to play Michèle. So when Huppert accepted the role, he had the script turned into a French film. One can still see traces of a postmodern America in Elle. ↩
- “The Salesman | Asghar Farhadi,” UCLA Film TV Archive https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAI5UNfODuc ↩
- Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “shame,” accessed 1 March 2017, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=shame&allowed_in_frame=0 ↩
- Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, vol. 11, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998): p.182. ↩
- Eric Kohn, “Cannes Review: Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ is a Lighthearted Rape-Revenge Story,” Indiewire (21 May 2016) http://www.indiewire.com/2016/05/cannes-review-paul-verhoevens-elle-is-a-lighthearted-rape-revenge-story-289023/ ↩