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Cinema | 'If You Die, I'll Kill You': Exile and Absurdity

by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in Paris

14 Apr 2011 20:15Comments

Golshifteh Farahani's new movie -- in more ways than one.

[ review ] In 2007, when she accepted a part in the film Body of Lies, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani also accepted the risk of exile from her homeland. As the Islamic Republic officially condemns Western culture, especially in its American form, it was not certain that the Iranian government would consent to her participation in a Hollywood production. Though there is no way to be certain, her decision might have been tolerated if Farahani had not appeared in public unveiled at promotional events for the film. It seems she could not -- or simply did not wish to -- refrain from taking part in such events nor did she want to veil herself in Hollywood.

Nobody could really predict what would happen, but what matters is the fact that she left Iran after appearing in the film and settled down in Paris. How could a successful Iranian actor like her deal with exile in France? This became a popular question and few Iranians living in Paris could imagine her future in the city. Without fluency in the French tongue, her career as an actress seemed to be compromised.

"She will return to Iran," speculated many of her countrymen. "She will finally go to the United States," responded some others. Only a few imagined she would stay for good in France.

Three years have passed and Farahani is still living in Paris. Not only does she seem to have found an inner stability in the city, but she has started acting again. In the new French production If You Die, I'll Kill You (Si tu meurs, je te tue), she plays the role of a Kurdish woman who leaves her country for a new life in the City of Lights.

The film's offbeat title seems to refer to a Kurdish idiom. Another translation might be "If You Die, You're in Big Trouble." And here is the subject of the movie: a man suddenly dies and his fiancée, his father, and a new friend are consequently forced to make crucial choices about their lives.

Philippe, a Frenchman who has just been released from jail, meets Avdal, a Kurdish refugee looking for an Iraqi war criminal in a quest for revenge. They become friends and Avdal winds up staying in Philippe's little studio, located on the top floor of an old Parisian building. We discover that Avdal has a fiancée, Ziba, who plans to join him in France. But Avdal unexpectedly dies from a heart attack, and Philippe has to deal with his corpse. Even though he finds some Kurdish men who agree to contact his family abroad, he finally decides, for financial reasons, to cremate the body.

Ziba, unaware of what has transpired, arrives in Paris and waits for Avdal at Charles de Gaulle Airport. After a few hours, she realizes that she has to find him herself. She meets a group of Kurds, the same ones Philippe met a few days before, who agree to help her. Cheto, Avdal's father and a radical Islamist, also comes to Paris after he learns of his son's death. He cannot forgive Philippe for having cremated the body -- Muslims reject cremation -- and he orders Ziba to return home and marry his other son. Ziba refuses and goes to Philippe's place. Although they are attracted to one another, she decides to live a life of her own. Cheto, after threatening her with death, finally comes to respect her choice and returns to his native land.

Hiner Saleem, born in 1969, is a Kurdish filmmaker who lives in Paris. If You Die, I'll Kill You, which opened here on March 23, is his second feature film. The first, Vodka Lemon (2004), concerns life in an Armenian village. A man, after attending many funerals including that of his own wife, decides to give himself another chance in life and begins a romance with a younger woman. This simple and timeless tale is narrated in a poetic fashion that finds the comedy and absurdity in existential matters.

If You Die, I'll Kill You also encompasses melodrama and comedy, tragedy and absurdity. The Armenian village has given way to the Parisian Tenth Arrondissement, in which a substantial Kurdish community has grown over the past 30 years.

Approximately 150,000 Kurds currently reside in France, many of whom live and work in Paris's Tenth. Much of this immigration is quite recent. During the 1960s and '70s, the first Kurdish immigrants came to France for economic reasons. During the '80s, '90s, and after September 11, the wave of immigration became more political, prompted by the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the growing discrimination against the country's Kurds that followed; by Saddam Hussein's Anfal Operation in 1987, which used chemical gas to kill thousands of people and destroyed 90 percent of Iraq's Kurdish villages; by the Turkish military operations against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in 1984 and the subsequent destruction of 3,428 Kurdish villages there. Recently, due to the second U.S.-led war in Iraq, many Kurds fled from Iraqi Kurdistan and joined this Parisian community.

Saleem prefers to make his audiences laugh rather than to narrate the tragedy of his people. He neither focuses on his characters' political pasts nor presents them as activists. The group of Kurds he depicts belong to the same family and act much as if they were the Daltons from the Lucky Luke comic book series. One scene sums up the director's comedic vision: Always together, these Kurdish Daltons silently sit at the bar of a café. Very seriously, they order a round of coffee, wait for each cup to be served, and drink together simultaneously with identical gestures. Kurdish culture is conveyed in a folkloric manner and to see these men singing in the barbershop, dancing during a wedding, or justifying their honor codes is amusing more than anything else.

Saleem seems to want the film to evoke matters such as exile and loneliness without drama and pathos. We know little of the characters' biographies, of their past experiences or future plans. We never learn, for instance, why Philippe was imprisoned. Avdal also remains a mystery and so does Ziba. What matters here is the humanity of these people as they struggle with everyday life in Paris.

Long sequences shot in close-up show them experiencing new sensations. During her first night in Paris, as she looks at the gray sky from her tiny balcony, Ziba feels the freshness of the air and discovers her loneliness, far from the security of her family and homeland. Later in the film, she goes to the bar her fiancé used to frequent and orders her first glass of wine. The way she tastes it transforms this common drink into a sacred beverage embodying liberty and feminine emancipation.

Philippe spends most of his time in his empty apartment, and the heavy smoke of his cigarettes reflects a man lost in impenetrable thoughts. Adval quietly and obsessively eats eggs and seems to ponder his past life in Kurdistan. These silent scenes have a cumulative emotional effect and lead us to identify both with the specific characters and the universal state of loneliness they enact.

There is no need to overanalyze this charming and fresh little film. Even though the performances are not always credible, Saleem and cinematographer Manuel Teran took great efforts to enchant the characters' melancholic poses of solitude, especially in Farahani's sequences. Her various attitudes look like frozen images in which different kinds of lighting, whether a shy ray of the sun, the cold but smooth radiance of a rainy day, or the fragile glow of a romantic night, all underline her sensuality and natural beauty.

Indeed, Farahani is a gorgeous woman and there is an unsettling aspect to seeing her suddenly unveiled and dressed down in tank tops and simple summer dresses. She is unconvincing in this guise. I had the feeling that the film, rather than truly dealing with Ziba as a character amid the Kurdish community in Paris, was rather displaying Farahani herself, as a sophisticated Iranian artist struggling to find her way in exile.

The final scene seemed to confirm my intuition: It is a hot and humid summer night. She walks under the verdant trees near the Canal Saint-Martin. On the water are reflected the lights of a famous Parisian movie theater. In a little silver box, she has kept the ashes of her fiancé. It starts to rain. She opens the box, lets the ashes fly in the air, and starts to laugh as she experiments with freedom, finally liberated from film censorship and all the religious and social taboos of her country, Iran.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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