Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman is too poised and immaculate for its own good, but full of disturbing undercurrents all the same. Of course, since the film has just won the director his second Oscar – the first was for A Separation (2011) – we could also say it knows exactly what’s good for it, but the two thoughts are perhaps not entirely opposed. Poise and trouble can collaborate, as when you fail to lose your calm when failure was what was needed.
Nobody fails to lose their calm in the play the film’s title alludes to, but they do talk about failure a lot – about nothing else, since failure seems to haunt every desperate dream the characters devise for themselves. And being on the road in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman means the mirror opposite of Jack Kerouac’s travelling adventure. It means driving around failing to sell your goods in place after place till your car itself seems to want to commit suicide. ‘For a salesman,’ a neighbour says when Willy Loman dies, ‘there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man riding out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.’ And he’s the man we see at the start of the play, no longer smiling, entering the elaborate set that shows all the innards of his house, ‘carrying two large sample cases’. ‘His exhaustion is apparent,’ the published text tells us.
The film opens on just this set and just this moment. It’s hard to tell where we are. There are clanking noises of a machine moving what turns out to be scenery, but a theatre is not the obvious first thought. Then just as we decide it is the right thought, the location changes. We are in an apartment building, people are shouting, windows are cracking, and everyone is being called on to leave. The building may be about to collapse. An amazing high-angle shot from a window shows an excavator digging up the ground next door – presumably the cause of the trouble, making all proximate foundations slip. The camera concentrates on one married couple in their rush to leave. They are, although we don’t know this yet, Emad, played by Shahab Hosseini, and Rana, played by Taraneh Alidoosti – both actors appeared in Farhadi’s About Elly (2009). The very subtle cinematographer of The Salesman, Hossein Jafarian, worked on that film too. We also learn a little later that Emad and Rana are Willy and Linda Loman, in a Tehran production of the play. The set we have seen is theirs, and the narrative of the film begins with their needing to find a new place to live.
A colleague in the theatre helps them out, and the new place looks welcoming, airy and spacious. It’s haunted, though. A previous occupant has left her stuff all over the place, and one locked room full of her clobber. She doesn’t answer her phone and can’t be contacted in any way. Emad and Rana break into the locked room and put all the stuff out on the terrace. When rain pours down, Emad manages to move some of it to shelter, although not actually back into the flat. He’s a man of some scruple.
Emad and Rana speak jokingly of the child they may have some day. It’s not clear how much of the joke isn’t a joke, or whether they both feel the same way about it, and when they look after the small son of one of their companions in the theatre, their characters seem to change. They become warm and kindly and funny – closer to each other, perhaps, as well as delighted to have the boy with them. Otherwise they are kind and civil, but a little remote in their relation – or perhaps not remote, just busy, lost in a routine that has gone on too long without a change. We get a similar oblique sense of the marriage when we visit Emad’s classroom – he’s a schoolteacher as well as an actor. Here is a gang of apparently rather unruly teenage boys who like Emad a lot, and he manages them and their moods with ease and amusement. He is at home with them as he isn’t when he is at home. Male bonding, perhaps. But why would we think that?
We wouldn’t, unless we had seen the rest of the movie. The former occupant of the flat left behind not only lots of stuff but a roster of unsatisfied clients in the neighbourhood, and one of them comes to call. At this point Farhadi offers us a wonderfully scary, if still discreet, bit of horror-movie hokum. Emad has to stay late at the theatre to discuss some cuts the censor may require his company to make to the play – it is an infidel American work after all, even if it’s a classic – and Rana decides it’s time to wash her hair. All very domestic, as certain species of horror are required to be. Someone rings the bell downstairs, she assumes it’s Emad who has forgotten his key, buzzes him into the building, leaves the door to the flat slightly open and returns to the bathroom. At this point the door takes over the whole film. We watch it decide to move a little, and, taking its time, swing fully open. We know something nasty is about to happen, but it could literally be anything, since all we’ve got to go on is the excessively hospitable door and our imagination. We don’t have enough information yet about the former occupant to imagine the client. We see no more of this part of the story, and it is never fully reconstructed even when the characters talk about it, and it becomes the main motor of the plot.
What certainly happened is that there was a scuffle, a mirror broke, Rana was severely wounded in the head, the intruder cut his foot and left a sock behind, along with quite a lot of money, as if paying for a service. We assume a rape took place, although all the intruder says, when he is finally found and confronted with his act, is: ‘I was tempted.’ Rana, understandably we might think, doesn’t want Emad too near her now, and doesn’t want him to leave her alone either. He doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t try very hard. He is angry, personally offended, and obsessed with what he takes to be Rana’s damaged honour – her honour not her psyche.
The film spends a little too long on the elementary details of his search for the offender – the van left behind, the casual glimpse of the van on the street when it has been recuperated, the suspected son of the van-owning salesman, the guilt of the father himself. Emad neglects Rana, for her own sake, as he thinks, for the sake of the revenge he wants for her, and the movie seems to side with him – does side with him, as far as its disposition of time is concerned. But it also, through this very concentration, does something that moves us more deeply. It allows us to live through the neglect with Rana, and to understand, as she does, that Emad’s revenge will not save or justify their marriage, but end it. Not because of her honour or her pain or her bewilderment, but because of his cruel addiction to masculine justice, which we see richly at work as he torments and ultimately kills the salesman. It’s as if he doesn’t need to think of anything else. Rana says this to him clearly, but he ignores her. They separate, seemingly for ever, but then we see them together again in a performance of Death of a Salesman. Is this a reunion, or an ultimate mockery of the relation between theatre and life? We may remember the film’s earlier insistence on the make-up of both characters, the scenic ageing, wigs, wrinkled skin – we see all this being put on, taken off, several times. ‘There is no rock bottom to the life,’ as Miller’s character says of an only slightly different situation. That’s how the Iranians become baffled Americans; and how we come to suspect that the actor playing Willy Loman may now be deader than Willy Loman, even if he’ll be back tomorrow night to be dead again.
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