Closed Curtain screens at New York City’s Film Forum this week. It expands to other markets, including Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center, on July 25th.
Jafar Panahi, currently in the midst of a six year house arrest sentence that prohibits him from making a film, clearly brings a unique twist to the notion of “writing what you know”. Besides watching his 2001 film The Circle, I’m unfamiliar with his work, which includes his 2010 film This is Not a Film - the first film he made while living out his sentence. This puts me in a difficult, perhaps somewhat unprepared, position to review Closed Curtain, as comparatively, it’s impossible to pinpoint any particular recurring thematic threads that the filmmaker may be addressing. This problem is compounded with the general sense that Closed Curtain is a remarkably condensed work as very little in my experience with Iranian cinema prepared me for what Panahi explores in this picture.
Closed Curtain presents itself as a piece of fiction, with a middle-aged writer (co-director Kambuzia Partovi) seeking refuge in a deserted home. He brings his dog with him in a duffle bag since the Iranian government has just recently passed a law prohibiting dog walking. The writer spends much of his time tweaking his quarters: he draws the curtain, writes, and plays with his dog. Late night visitors barge into the residence, leaving behind a young woman (Maryam Moqadam). How the two operate in the household and the increasing sense of paranoia and anxiety that festers between them offers the promise of a different kind of film. In a way, there’s a sense of convention that guides this opening act of the film. But progressively, the writer and the young women service a larger goal, as director Jafar Panahi enters the frame.
From here, Closed Curtain enters a heavily symbolic terrain that feels a bit too relentless to properly absorb. The two figures, the writer and the woman, address Panahi’s inner strife for living out his sentence. His motivation and artistic sensibility colliding with despair - it goes beyond suggestion that Panahi has considered suicide during his house arrest.
Panahi is very fluid filmmaker and edits the images in a concise and often times compelling manner, shifting between perceived reality and fantasy swiftly, but I can’t say these images ever really linger. Compositionally the frames are rich but visually they lack potency; the digitized imagery is simply not very attractive. This doesn’t bode well for the narrative either, which could have used a sense of visual finesse to provoke urgency. Instead, Closed Curtain captures a decaying spirit minus any sense of gravitas. I suppose the problem here stems from how Panahi attempts to create a puzzle out of whether his images are reality or fiction. As the film unfolds, there’s a sense that perhaps every image that follows looks to contradict the one preceding it. A somewhat similar approach - to which a viewer understands a relationship one way only to see it possibly become something else - was masterfully explored in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (one of Panahi’s peers). But its employment in Closed Curtain provides an undermining effect that alienated my viewing experience rather than bringing me in.