Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman is a tense, visceral drama of wounded masculinity — and therein lies part of its problem. Farhadi, whose About Elly and A Separation are two of the greatest movies of the past decade, can find tension in the most mundane of exchanges, and he can bring your heart to a stop with just a few glances. But he also brings a sociological rigor to his work: Class, gender, property and the law often are at the root of his films. The Salesman works well on a ground level, but everything resting atop the foundational drama slowly crumbles.
The film opens with married theater actors Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) being forced out of their apartment building after it starts to shake and crack, thanks to a construction project next door. Through a colleague, they manage to find a flat that’s about to be vacated by another woman, Ahoo. But she never shows up to take her stuff away. That puts a strain on Emad and Rana’s own relationship, a situation that becomes dire when Rana is assaulted in their new place after letting in a mysterious man whom she thought was Emad.
Horrified, humiliated and shaken, her husband sets out to find the culprit, who in a rush left his cellphone and van behind. All the while, Emad and Rana are performing in a version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman onstage — a seemingly random and unwieldy juxtaposition whose thematic link to the couple’s offstage drama gradually becomes a bit clearer. The play soon is affected by their fraying relationship and recent trauma, but it also, in turn, seems to affect their reality.
It's tough to do justice to my complicated feelings about Farhadi’s latest without giving away several climactic reveals. So let me put it this way: The director's ability to stage a scene, to build the tensions between his characters until you're bursting with anticipation, remains so potent that I admired the immensity of his skill even as I called bullshit on much of what I was seeing. Farhadi’s mastery of intimate drama, of the glances and slights and minor transgressions that can poison relationships, is predicated on moving the pieces of his narrative puzzle into just the right configuration for maximum conflict. This time, as he manhandles things into place, cracks begin to appear in his artifice.
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Part of that may have to do with the fact that even as The Salesman shifts focus to the ostensibly intellectual Emad’s shattered pride and thirst for macho vengeance, you can’t help but wonder about Ahoo, the unknown woman who once resided in the flat. We never see her but we sense her presence — so much so, in fact, that she becomes a defining absence for the first half. She’s a collection of signifiers, and the film effectively presents her as an irresponsible, even manipulative woman with a surprising number of male callers and a child out of wedlock.
Now, Farhadi understands forgotten women; About Elly was all about one. And the way his camera settles its gaze on the objects Ahoo left behind — a kid’s bicycle, toys, a variety of elegant shoes and dresses — and the way the neighbors gossip and complain about her makes it clear that he wants her to linger in our consciousness. But by denying Ahoo any real agency or specificity, he has unwittingly generalized her or, rather, reduced her to a symbol that would make any religious conservative proud: the irresponsible "loose" woman who ruins everything for everyone.
It doesn't quite end there, either. The ultimate cause of the assault on Rana appears to turn on the notion that men, even good men, are powerless against their urges when left alone with a woman. That’s an idea worth exploring, perhaps, but here it’s treated more as a narrative convenience, and not a particularly convincing one at that. The movie constantly hints at broader issues — a class element is at play here, for instance — most of which are too muddled to have the proper impact. Watching The Salesman, I can’t help but feel that this is the first time Farhadi’s mastery of the particular is undercut by the artificiality with which he’s treated the general. He remains one of the world’s foremost filmmakers, but this time around, his expertise and artistry are undone by phoniness.