Like Ari Folman, the Israeli who earned widespread recognition and a Golden Globe for his 2008 rotoscoped doco Waltz with Bashir, Alain Ughetto can’t really remember his time in the Middle East. While Folman’s amnesia was traumatically induced, a selective misremembering of an infamous massacre in Beirut, Ughetto can’t recall something purer: the face of his lover, the titular Jasmine. The film, a lo-fi collage of claymation and salvaged pre-Revolution footage shot in Iran, deals intently and patiently with the processes of memory, autobiography and ideology and in a measured sixty-nine minutes. Ughetto, voiced off-screen by Jean-Pierre Darroussin, recounts how he and Jasmine met as students in France and decamped to Tehran full of revolutionary fervour, but soon found themselves disillusioned with their political dreams, and with each other. An animated autobiographical documentary about the Iranian Revolution will inevitably draw comparisons to a third film, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but the resemblance is only apparent on the surface. At their core, the films could hardly be more different – Persepolis uses its graphic novel inspiration as the basis for a pugnacious story of self-discovery amid chaos, whereas Jasmine tries to evoke something more nebulous: the loss of oneself, hopes and loves and all. Ughetto’s lover, we are told, is known instead as “Yossaman” in her native Farsi – even her name can’t be pinned down to a hard truth.
The single most important element of the film is undoubtedly its use of clay figures to represent Alain and Jasmine; as it begins, we see Ughetto, always hands-only, uncover a box of these figures and tell us that he gave up stop-motion animation at the same time as he gave up the girl and left her in Tehran. The implication that he will use animation to physically revive their story is borne out by a record he plays while working which features a metronome and boasts that its “acoustic qualities” will allow him to reach a more meditative state, as well as the physical traits of clay. The material’s viscous, fluid nature, the metronome’s calming tick, and the blank, eyeless figures he uses to portray himself and Jasmine all point to an understanding on Ughetto’s part of the basically unreliable voice which he is providing – “I can’t remember her face,” he says mournfully. A filmmaker so fully aware that his film is a subjective, conscious effort to rebuild a longed-for past is able to turn a potentially indulgent autobiography into a touching reflection.1 Other aspects of Jasmine’s mise-en-scène are equally impressive – Ughetto’s Tehran is, improbably, made of polystyrene packing boxes, whose pockmarked sandy tone conveys the Middle East as perceived by a Westerner perfectly. Indeed, the obviousness smallness of the Claymation set, coupled with the film’s briefness and Darroussin’s hushed voice-over give a sense of intimacy and sparseness, which allow the humanity of the narrative to take precedence.
There are limitations of using animation, though, and where the film delves into political history is far less captivating as a result. Some of the artefacts we see in live-action sequences are interesting enough, particularly a collection of hand-drawn satirical cartoon presumably penned by Ughetto at the time, but as a rule there is little of the Revolution here that we haven’t seen before, aside from the central romance. When grainy news clips, interviews with the Shah, and footage of protests begin to interrupt the animation, it feels like more like an admission of stop-motion’s inability to portray real-life media than a worthwhile plot device. Most criminally, though, is that it lessens the effect of some live-action footage which appears at the end of the film to accompany the unexpected reappearance of Jasmine herself. Despite the clumsy build-up, the conclusion remains brilliant, with a now modern-day Jasmine (voiced pseudonymously by Fanzaneh Ramzi) almost provoking Alain to reconnect with her. Ughetto’s use of her cryptic letters and the physical breakdown of the film image recall another Alain – to atrociously paraphrase the late Resnais, by its end Jasmine has become a kind of Last Year at Tehran for the Arab Spring generation.