As someone who devotes a significant chunk of her mental life to the question of women in film, the title Women Without Men intrigues, but ultimately stirs up a distinct sense of dread. I confess the words make me anxious. The first thing they call to mind is some godawful standup routine, relentlessly hurtling to an inevitable punch line about toilet seats. Or else it promises something polemicized and thesis-y, desperately and insistently laboring to prove a constant, natural truth.
Look, I’ll admit to the occasional fantasy about the self-assured, accomplished woman I’d be had I gone to all-girls schools, but, generally speaking, separation strikes me as a fairly fruitless avenue of discussion, too often reduced to the rather insulting notion “Just take a look at what women can achieve without any of those pesky penises around to distract them!”
It must be said that Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat’s adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s magical realist tale of the interconnected lives of four women during the 1953 coup d’état in Iran, doesn’t really stray from this ideological terrain. The answers to the “what can the penis-free woman accomplish?” question are fairly expected: become politically actualized, or retreat to an idyllic locale and recover from the trauma they have suffered at the hands of men. The concerns and tribulations pressing on its principal characters—rape, prostitution, the pressure to get married when you don’t want to—stay very much within the confines of Feminism 101, and rather than taking these problems apart and seeing how they work, Neshat lets them hang unexamined over the picture, weighty signifiers of injustice.
Of course, clichés work well if you handle them with delicacy. Neshat tackles her subjects with varying degrees of success. One must always approach prostitutes with a light touch—such over-trodden territory—and the story of the withered, damaged Zarin (Orsi Toth), constitutes the weakest part of the film. We of course get the obligatory shot of the bored face and the wildly bucking bed to signify unsatisfying sex, but the shot of Zarin’s skeletal frame scrubbing herself till she bleeds in a public bath feels the most obvious, maudlin, and unearned.
At the same time, Neshat often surprises with her subtlety. One of the characters transitions from a very traditional appearance to a modern, westernized one, and the change occurs organically—no kicky makeover montage—and carries no symbolic weight, refusing to function as a sign of either empowerment or sexualization. To liberate a woman’s appearance from the realm of signification in this manner constitutes a refined and advanced accomplishment in the representation of women.
Yet these liberating moments are just so many champagne bubbles in an overall atmosphere of ineffable sadness. Here, “women without men” often means “women alone”; deeply, existentially alone. This solitude manifests itself on the visual level; the film brims over with shots of its protagonists, by themselves, framed by stark blue skies, wild desolate nature, or austere interiors. The camera is alone too; it moves in stately trajectories or circles slowly, traversing through space, but rarely coming close or touching things. The style of Women Without Men reminded me very much of Michael Cunningham’s prose in The Hours—palpable sense of time and waiting, the sudden and surprising significance of objects—and I wondered if he and Neshat have stumbled upon an aesthetic of feminine desperation.
Of course, “women without men” can also mean “women with other women” and though the content is different, this phrase conjures up connotations just assuredly for women as it does for men. Many of the joys of same-sex bonding are surely the same for both genders; a conspiratorial atmosphere, the liberty to speak freely, the solace of shared experience. Ostensibly, three of the women in the film find comfort in each other’s company, but that camaraderie never feels like much of a tangible, developed entity. When two of the women meet for the first time, we see them talking but don’t hear what they’re saying; the tentative camera withdraws quickly. Relationships between women, much like the problems they face, exist as givens in Neshat’s world, monolithic and unexamined.
Too often in films for and about women, problems resolve themselves with the introduction of the right man. Not only pat and simplistic, it also leads to predictable, formulaic scenes telegraphing the sensitive bona fides of the man in question and demonstrating how wonderful life has become in his presence. Neshat, perhaps understandably, skirts the issue entirely. But one cannot deny that separating the sexes also deprives woman of the pleasure of male company, and, at times, this deprivation feels more punitive than edifying. The orchard where three of the women reside employs an arrestingly handsome caretaker; he shuffles, specterlike, around the periphery of the film. Though there is nothing threatening about him—indeed it’s vaguely suggested that he may be a healer—the film keeps him at a distance, safe to look at, but not to touch. Similarly, when the young idealist (Shabnam Tolouei), asks a man sitting next to her in a café, “Are you a Communist?” and he, eyeing her shiftily, replies “Are you?” one can’t help but lament the missed opportunity for flirtation.
But politics, even more so than women, are Neshat’s primary concern, and the result is a film divided into two not entirely symbiotic sections. Politics must prove a tricky quagmire for any Iranian filmmaker; the subject presses on the country with such urgency that one must feel compelled to address it. At the same time, issues so huge threaten to swallow any film whole. Furthermore, the Iranian situation has become something of a signifier for political injustice, and because Neshat’s tale of political activism represents the entire history of Iranian resistance, the viewer has difficulty. Of course, bald symbolism often affects us deeply, but here it also leaves us a bit rootless. There is no sense, as is so wonderfully evoked in Marjane Satrapi’s work, of Iran as a nation beyond its political travails, culturally and intellectually rich and complex. Here we see it only as a site where injustice occurs.
Indirect ideology often hits us more powerfully, and sometimes it blends harmoniously with aesthetic and emotional considerations. All of this comes together beautifully in Arita Shahrzad’s performance, which is the reason to see Women Without Men. Her extraordinary beauty strikes you first; she marries elegant sophistication and earthy sensuality in a way that makes you forget the two don’t always go together. Her face, fleshy yet refined, proves remarkably expressive; you know everything you need to know about a lifetime of disappointment by the way she removes her makeup. (One hates to hop on a well-worn soapbox, but her face serves as a powerful counterpoint to those actresses of a certain age who blast the mobility out of their faces in the name of beauty.)
You take such pleasure in watching Shahrzad that you think her character is going to be one of those women who has elevated her own suffering into an art form and can’t get out of it. But the dirty little secret about feminine power is that it doesn’t need to be asserted because it already exists, quite naturally and in spite of the odds, and reveals itself all the time. Shahrzad’s Fakhri, with little fanfare, completely redefines the terms of both her life and the film. As she walks through the thorny wilds of the orchard or the ghostly abandoned rooms of the adjoining estate, the self-possession inscribed in her face and body is so powerful that it transmogrifies the space around it, which instantly becomes her own. The image of her presiding over a table filled with bunches of grapes and heaps of steaming rice provides such a visceral, rapturous satisfaction that you almost miss how eloquently it touches on traditional notions of feminine power; hospitality, fertility, abundance. Beautiful images have their own politics, and it is with this language that Women Without Men speaks most powerfully and passionately.
JULIA SIRMONS is sleeping on the couch.