The opening sequence starts with several separate shots of a theater set, each new frame focusing on a different piece of the set that is then, in turn, illuminated by its own rickety light fixture. Opening a movie with a theater set or a stage curtain is nothing new; since even before Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise, this type of opening has often served to remind the viewer of the fictional staging of the movie, giving the film a more distant, metaphorical feel. However, in the opening of The Salesman, we see individual lights illuminating the disorganization of the set of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Farhadi wants to draw our focus to the pervasive gazes of the spectators, bringing to light every dark, dirty corner of the stage.
Especially known for A Separation in 2011, which told the story of a couple managing their child amidst a potential divorce, Farhadi again writes, directs, and produces his latest film. The Salesman was enthusiastically welcomed in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year, eventually winning both the Best Screenplay and the Best Actor award for Farhadi and Shahab Hosseini respectively. The film follows Emad and Rana, a young couple played by Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, after a difficult relocation from a crumbling apartment building. After finding a new apartment through a friend, they have some difficulty moving in when they discover the previous tenant, later discovered to be a prostitute, has abandoned a large amount of her belongings in one of the rooms. Through an unfortunate accident, Rana allows in one of the prostitutes old clients who, looking for the previous tenant, discovers and assaults her, leaving her beaten and violated in a messy getaway for the neighbors to rush her to the hospital. Rana’s embarrassment of the assault and Emad’s confused lust for revenge start to detriment both their performances in the Arthur Miller play as well as their relationship.
In the masterful sequence following the opening scene, Rana and Emad wake up to shouts and tremors pervading their apartment; the building is collapsing and all inhabitants are frenziedly evacuating. The camera follows the couple, indecisively switching from one to the other and racing around the apartment like one of the confused evacuees. Farhadi is clearly very influenced by the realistic fiction narrative style of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and the cinematography of this scene seems to, in a way, recall the claustrophobic camerawork of Rosetta. In the film, the camera hounds the main actress as she runs from place to place, evoking a sense of anxiety and distress. Farhadi’s camera rolls through the apartment much more smoothly, but its randomness and tendency to backtrack its path as it rolls around the room replicate the uneasiness of Rosetta. The scene ends as the camera approaches a cracking window to look below; an excavator is crippling the foundation of the building, with a frightening tremor accompanying each impact.
The entire movie, from the unsettling debut, is plagued with a pervading sense of instability. In one scene, Rana and Emad bring one of their fellow thespian’s children over to their house for dinner. Rana cooks some spaghetti, and the family seems to enjoy their first moment of happiness until Emad asks how Rana paid for the food. Upon discovering that the money she used is the same money that was left by Rana’s assaulter that he brought to pay the prostitute, the alleviation is destroyed. It’s a powerfully moving moment as Rana becomes nauseous from the few spoonfuls she had already swallowed, as if the presence of the food in her stomach somehow justifies the guilt of the violation imposed by the judging society.
After the break-in, Rana urges Emad not to file a complaint to the police; she doesn’t want to have to recount the story and testify before a court. After Emad reluctantly agrees, he crosses paths with his neighbor in the stairwell while cleaning up blood left by the intruder. The neighbor inquires as to why Emad would wash the blood off the stairs before the police collect the evidence. After informing him that he doesn’t intend to press charges, the neighbor replies “if you had been the one to find her, you wouldn’t be saying that”. What embarrasses Rana and enrages Emad turns out not to be the violation itself so much as it is the judgment of their peers. Their performances in the play falter before the spectators’ gazes as does their moral comportments amid a ferociously exacting society. The Salesman is a powerful reflection on how doing the right thing doesn’t always line up with what is expected of you.