Revenge ain’t what it used to be. Where movies once dispatched their wronged characters on black-and-white journeys of violent retribution, two of the most compelling films in recent memory have taken curiously complex approaches to exploring the phenomena of retribution, guilt, and—most explicitly—desire. Paul Verhoeven’s Elle twisted along a wildly unexpected route of female agency in response to its triggering rape, and now Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, in focusing almost exclusively on the male reaction to a possible sexual trespass, offers a fascinating counterpoint when that agency is completely denied.
All of which is easy to miss in the conversation around the picture, which, with its recent Oscar win for Best Foreign Language Film and Farhadi’s non-attendance at the ceremony, risks weaponising The Salesman as a political cause célèbre. Not to diminish the director’s justified stance against the US’s immigration ban, but reports of Academy members voting for the film sight unseen paint a more worrying picture of audience engagement—it’s a film that deserves to be seen so as to not obscure its exquisite interpersonal dynamics.
The Salesman is bookended by distinctly theatrical motifs, drawn, as the title implies, from the Arthur Miller play in which its central couple are involved. Plays within a film can herald hack thematic signposting, but Farhadi is on an elevated game here. Consider his carefully composed intro: a stage-bound empty marital bed, lit with the sickly glow of pre- or post-intimacy, a deserted battleground or one waiting to happen. He swiftly cuts to construction work threatening to collapse an apartment building, from which married theatre couple Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are forced to flee; blunt, perhaps, but effective shorthand in establishing his film’s slippery domestic terrain. That his final image puts his two leads in tight close up as they apply stage makeup is both more and far less intimate—layers of disguise caked onto faces reduced to empty reflections.
The path to connect these images is a labyrinthine one; not so much in terms of plot as emotional landscape, which constantly shifts under its players. We initially find Rama and Emad rehearsing for Death of a Salesman; he’s the director and a drama teacher, she’s his leading actress. The relationship seems sound enough until one day Rama leaves their apartment door unhinged, thinking Emad’s on his way home and—in a breathlessly-held moment of formal terror—allows an intruder into the apartment, who we later discover assaulted her.
The incident appears to set up a thriller of whodunit investigations, with Emad attempting to track down the culprit via increasingly convoluted traps. The nature of the crime itself is deliberately—or for Iranian film censorship reasons—kept vague, adding an extra ripple to the predicament. We’re lead to believe that Rama alternately fell and hit her head, or that the intruder struck her and fled, but the film infers something more sinister. Is the husband merely overreacting to a minor scenario? Is it something far uglier, that the film obscures because Emad, in accordance with his patriarchal pride, isn’t willing admit to himself?
As Emad’s pursuit of Rama’s assailant grows ever more desperate, he becomes deeply oblivious to the fact that he’s alienating her. Rama isn’t afforded any agency, and in Farhadi’s presumably deliberate storytelling, little in the way of perspective, either. Whether she’s terrified to reveal the details of the attack to her husband or being willfully forgetful, the narrative cedes control almost entirely to Emad, whose quest eschews nominal righteousness for what really appears to be at stake—saving his own, male, face in the knowledge that his wife’s reputation may have been tarnished. The scenario is complicated by evoking a more problematic side to Iran’s traditional rape narrative—that the woman is often at fault. Notice here that nobody once encourages Rama to go to the police. It’s the man’s duty to sort it out.
It’s here that The Salesman works most as a companion to Verhoeven’s film, which took a rape as the impetus for a progressive—and transgressive—agenda of female desire and response. Farhadi’s film is no less fascinating in its negotiation of the inverse, a situation in which the woman is denied right of response, even to the point where she feels compelled to hide her trauma. In The Salesman, the means of revenge are explicitly assumed by the man, who must necessarily deny any inherent eroticism. Embarrassment is for him to burden—in a revealing aside, we see a poster for Bergman’s Shame peeking out from the debris in Emad’s room. That both husband and wife are actors who face each other on stage doubles the drama: performance is a part of their composition.
Farhadi is typically adept at crafting these elements into emotional thrillers, and once again he demonstrates his ability to give spiky dimension to his characters’ dilemma here. It’s there in everything from his actors’ performances to his sometimes pointed imagery, such as the way Rama’s hijab is swapped out for a bandage—another form of emotional concealment—post attack. Alidoosti is quietly forceful in a role that forces her deeply into her character’s interior, while Hosseini is great as the husband whose masculinity is eroding in tandem with the degree he attempts to assert it.
The Salesman pulls off a tricky highwire act once Rama’s attacker is eventually found: she’s forgiving of this rather pathetic creature, while Emad maintains his mandate for violent vengeance. That Farhadi humanises all parties involved—he neither endorses nor indicts—is testament to his pursuit of complexity over easy narrative closure, leaving his audience with questions that don’t adhere to strict moral parameters. As Farhadi noted in his Oscar’s acceptance statement, “dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear; a deceitful justification for aggression and war.” The Salesman proves that sentiment is as applicable on the domestic front as the international stage.