She’s Got a Ticket to Ride: Iranian Woman in Driver’s Seat

Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten , from his own screenplay, makes maximum use of a minimalist structure to deliver some cogent observations about the status of women in contemporary Iran. Over an indeterminate period of weeks or months, an upscale woman (Mania Akbari) who’s been divorced and remarried drives around Tehran conversing with a variety of passengers, all women-except for her shrewd and effusively hostile 10-year-old, Amin (Amin Maher), who never stops insulting her for having divorced his father and married another man, and for allegedly neglecting her own child to selfishly pursue her own life and career. In fact, in the first of the film’s 10 numbered sections, the camera stays on Amin while his unseen mother is heard responding to his endless tirades. One surmises that the boy is going to grow up to be a woman-scorning abuser like his father-and in his three subsequent appearances in the car, his hatred of his mother only hardens into guileful sneers at all her attempts to be reconciled. Well, at least women can drive cars in Iran-which is more than they can do in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Kiarostami varies his visual strategy, sometimes focusing only on his driver-protagonist, sometimes cutting back and forth between her and a passenger, and only very rarely allowing the camera to move outside the car to sneak in a bit of street atmosphere. The level of discourse never sinks to conventional small talk or ceremonial politeness. As each articulate conversation concludes so the next one can begin, a portrait emerges of the driver as a defiant feminist determined to lend support to other women, particularly those who’ve been abandoned and mistreated by men.

She herself has displayed courage in allowing her son to leave her and move in with his father. She’s amused when he tells her that his dad watches a porn channel on television at night, but has a lock on the channel to keep his son from seeing the same images. It’s a curious moment in the relationship between mother and son, in that the boy conveys a feeling of uncertainty and betrayal when he accidentally arms his mother with evidence of her ex-husband’s “weakness” for pornography. After an initially scene-stealing (and even picture-stealing) performance in the first episode, the child actor playing Amin begins to seem craftier and more calculating in his reactions and responses-and less sympathetic.

In separate episodes, the driver’s sister and one of her best friends are both tearfully inconsolable because they’ve been abandoned by their male lovers. In both situations, the driver functions as a one-woman support group as she preaches both resignation and defiant independence. The driver’s sister has gone so far as to cut off her hair-an action the driver supports with all the praise she can muster for her sister’s new “look.” As for the totally bereft best friend, the driver takes her out to dinner and parks the car, with defiant symbolism, in a no-parking zone.

Perhaps the driver’s oddest encounter is with a young prostitute who gets into the car under the mistaken impression that the driver is a man-and therefore a potential client. Here, the camera stays on the driver. We never see the face of this prostitute, who has a great deal to say about the differences and similarities between her profession and that of married women. According to this professional dispenser of sexual services, she sells sex wholesale, and married women sell it retail. The driver asks very naïvely about love as an incentive for sex, and begins to seem a bit of a busybody with her well-meaning but hopelessly superficial rhetoric. Her benevolence is dwarfed by the element of chance-the luck of the draw in human lives, as it plays across vast differences in economic and social opportunity. Having avoided the prostitute’s face in the car, the camera follows her from behind after she sets out to find a client in another vehicle.

One could imagine that a film consisting of nonstop dialogue punctuated by short stretches of silent driving would be too talky, too inevitably didactic, to serve as adequate movie entertainment. What makes Ten paradoxically compelling, however, is the eloquent choice of faces for the camera to contemplate. The women come vibrantly alive when they project what they’re thinking and feeling before they speak. They stare silently into the infinite distances of their circumscribed lives, and one feels a tremendous pathos.

Strange Days

Rose Troche’s The Safety of Objects , from her own screenplay, based on the book of stories by A.M. Homes, juggles the neuroses of four relentlessly dysfunctional families in the overworked movie hell of much-abused suburbia-a concept that has now degenerated in the public mind into the twin hells of Sprawlovia and Spillovia.

Ms. Troche’s previous films, Go Fish (1994) and Bedrooms and Hallways (1998), brought a welcome light touch to the new narrative forays into polymorphous perversity that developed once the screen evolved a more nuanced view of sexual choice. Both Ms. Troche’s earlier films were genuinely funny without being snide or self-righteous. The Safety of Objects , by contrast, is not funny at all. Its eccentricities are unending, and there’s no touchstone, no contrasting normality, to set off the bizarre behavior of its characters as something one can laugh at with impunity.

Ms. Troche made two major miscalculations in adapting the dramatically anemic tales of Ms. Homes. First, she combined separate stories, cramming them all into a single neighborhood and a single narrative strand. (She’s also transposed incidents involving different characters and combined some of the characters as well.) Second, she fragments the case histories of four separate families almost as if she were editing the choreography for Chicago .

Yet another problem involves the casting of variably familiar actors in the goulash of quick cutting, starting with the ultra-identifiable Glenn Close as Esther Gold, wife and mother in the Gold family, and Dermot Mulroney as Jim Train, husband and father in the Train family, then sliding down the scale in recognizability a bit to Mary Kay Place, the nervously aging wife and mother in the Christianson family, and the omnipresent Patricia Clarkson, divorced mother in the Jennings ménage. Their respective mates in each instance-Howard Gold (Robert Klein), Susan Train (Moira Kelly), Wayne Christianson (C. David Johnson) and Bruce Jennings (Andrew Airlie)-are more or less shunted to the sidelines, while their mostly indistinguishable children drift aimlessly from one joyless venue to another.

I had a hard time keeping track of the members of each family from one jagged scene to the next, especially since no one says or does anything particularly interesting. (Suburbia-in the movies, at least-doesn’t seem to tolerate intelligent conversation.) To make matters more confusing, the film is full of no-warning flashbacks that reconstitute entire families and relationships before the disastrous accidents have taken their toll.

Ms. Close’s Esther devotes herself to her comatose teenage son, Paul (Joshua Jackson), with a dedication that alienates both her husband and their daughter, Julie (Jessica Campbell). Paul has been gravely injured in an automobile accident; before that, he’d displayed talent as a musician, and also had been the teenage lover of Annette Jennings (Ms. Clarkson), who now gazes mournfully at his unconscious body from the next-door bedroom window.

Mr. Mulroney’s Jim Train has suffered a setback at his law firm. After years of neglecting his family for the sake of his work, he’s been passed over for a partnership-and so he pops up unexpectedly at home with a made-up story about a bomb threat closing down the office.

Jim’s efficient wife, Susan, has never made him feel needed around the house. Nor is he able to get closer to his teenage son, Jake (Alex House), who has formed a psychotic attachment to a 12-inch plastic doll belonging to his little sister, Emily (Carly Chalorn). When the slinkily dressed doll begins to talk back to Jake and flirt with him in provocative ways, I wanted to crawl under my seat with my own Barbie doll-anything to keep from watching Jake beat up his sister over custody of the brazen hussy doll.

To round out the dysfunctionality, next-door neighbor Helen Christianson is a fitness freak fighting off the aging process with a ferocity that alienates her husband and children. Elsewhere, there’s a somewhat anticlimactic pseudo-menacing mini-kidnapping with pedophiliac overtones, a bewildering radio-sponsored endurance contest to win an S.U.V. that enlists the combined energies of Esther and Jim, a non-fatal shooting and an apparent mercy killing-until the movie finally peters out at an ironically idyllic lawn party that reaffirms the almost total lack of emotional energy throughout. So much contrivance, so little conviction.

Topsy-Turvy

Gasper Noé’s Irreversible , from his own convoluted screenplay, convinces me as nothing else so far that I have reached the point of diminishing returns with movies that pretend to be profound by having their pulpy, banal stories told backwards and sideways and upside-down. By now, you’ve probably heard of the film’s eight- or 10-minute rape scene, which sent a few susceptible viewers at Cannes and the Toronto Film Festival screaming into the lobby and restrooms over the horror, the horror, of this particular heart of darkness.

Forget about the rape scenes in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and Lamont Johnson’s Lipstick (1976). They were mere cakewalks, with just a tantalizing trace of the victim’s complicity in the assault. There’s no complicity here, no fancy editing, no visual foreplay. There’s simply pure, nasty, viciously misogynistic hatred, photographed from a single, voyeuristically ugly angle-as if one were some sort of rodent camped in this sordid setting.

And I couldn’t buy it, despite all the rigamarole of out-of-sequence storytelling. We first see two men, later identified as Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), being hauled into a police wagon. Going back in time, we find them bent on some sort of mysterious revenge against a lowlife named “Le Ténia” (the Tapeworm), who has brutally assaulted someone called Alex (whom we later learn is the beautiful woman married to Marcus, played by Monica Bellucci.) Then we go back to a violent search by Marcus and Pierre in a gay hellhole known as the Rectum. In the murky darkness, the wrong man is battered to death with a fire extinguisher.

After this session in hell, Alex makes her first appearance. It’s late at night, and she’s walking alone in a skimpy but stylish party dress and a light overcoat. She’s advised by a prostitute standing on a noisy, crowded street corner that with all the traffic, it’s safer to use the underpass to reach the Metro across the street. The underpass itself is the scene of the rape, and it’s so forlorn and deserted that it defies belief. We learn later that Alex has been involved with both of her would-be avengers, and also that she’s pregnant. Despite these attempts at poignancy, I never got over my disbelief, and found all the characters lacking substance and flavor-before, after and during all the brutishness.