A man takes off his jacket and hangs it on the back of a chair: in itself, the simplest, most insignificant of actions, but here it carries an electrifying charge. The man in question has been passing himself off as an acclaimed film director to a trusting family of cinephiles; he has just realized that the game is up and that he is about to face the consequences. The removal of a layer of clothing, as well as signalling his acceptance (or at least awareness) of the inevitability of his impending downfall, thus also becomes a stripping away of his assumed identity, a shedding of his false self to reveal the more vulnerable true self beneath―the true self being the one that must meet with punishment. Even as he takes off the jacket, however, he is not yet ready to give up the pretence entirely, for he is still talking about rehearsing a scene from his new movie―his words a defiant, doomed last show of make-believe in tension with the submissive self-revealing of his action. What’s more, the actor, Hossain Sabzian, is playing himself, the real-life Hossain Sabzian, for the events depicted in Abbas Kiarostami’s remarkable Close-Up are based on a real-life incident: Sabzian really did impersonate director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, despite not bearing a particularly close resemblance to him. So the real-life Sabzian is playing himself playing Makhmalbaf, waiting to be exposed as Sabzian.
Above: Sabzian and Mehrdad regard each other while Sabzian removes his jacket.
The targets (if that is the right word) of Sabzian’s deception were the Ahankhahs: a cultured, apparently well-off family, who invited him into their home, lent him money, and put themselves and their house at his disposal, swayed by his talk of casting them in his next project and using their property as a location. They, too, re-enact their roles in the affair, alongside the suspicious friend, the journalist who reported the story, the judge in the ensuing court case, etc. As Sabzian removes his jacket, he reminds Mehrdad, one of the family’s sons (whom he’d promised a part in the non-existent movie), of the rehearsal that had been scheduled. But Mehrdad, who by now has stopped believing Sabzian’s lies, tells him to eat his breakfast and wanders off. The slight note of irritation in his voice and body language is all he can show of the anger and resentment concealed within―concealed for the purpose of keeping Sabzian in place until the police arrive. The latter, in turn, knows or at least strongly suspects that Mehrdad no longer trusts him, and only feigns belief in Mehrdad’s continued trust to prolong the performance he knows must end. As both men regard each other warily from opposite sides of the room, neither of their faces clearly visible to the viewer (Mehrdad’s is too far in the background, while we only see the back of Sabzian’s head), each knows the truth, but suppresses it, together outwardly maintaining an illusion when, inwardly, each is disillusioned. It’s a moment of exquisite poise and tension. The two sensitive, intelligent young men almost present, in their differences and similarities, mirror images of each other. One is worried about his deceit being exposed; the other is bitter about having been deceived. Sabzian is working-class, unemployed, struggling to stay afloat; Mehrdad is middle-class, also unemployed, struggling to find a suitable job since graduating in civil engineering (in any case, he has no enthusiasm for the subject, presumably having studied it in the mistaken belief that it would lead to a solid position). Both turn to the cinema and to performance as a means of briefly escaping, or enjoying the fantasy of escaping, their constricted social and economic realities, but it is not a flight into pure fantasy, nor is it an outright rejection of reality, for the ideal of cinema pursued here is of an art that portrays the sufferings and frustrations of ordinary people, that does not stray too far from the realities experienced by its viewers, that is born of them―art and fiction born of reality and truth. This ideal is shared by Mehrdad and Sabzian; it is what both of them value in the cinema of Makhmalbaf (and of Kiarostami); it is what Sabzian seeks to realize in make-believe by assuming the role of Makhmalbaf; it is what Mehrdad seeks to realize by collaborating with the man he believes is Makhmalbaf; it is what both of them seek to realize by collaborating with Kiarostami.
When Sabzian finishes adjusting his jacket on the chair, a boom comes into view at the top of the screen, serving as both an intrusion of ‘reality’ and an affirmation of ‘artifice’. It looks like an accident, of the kind that would be derided as an embarrassing gaffe in an average mainstream movie, and while the viewer can’t be sure that isn’t just that (an accident), there’s also the suspicion that the appearance of an accident has been artfully constructed. The reminder of the presence of an actual crew at work, with Kiarostami at the helm, is an acknowledgement that the action we are watching belongs as much to fiction and artifice as it does to reality. Sabzian and Mehrdad may be playing themselves, but they are not simply reliving events as they in fact happened; they are re-enacting them fictionally, according to another’s direction and scripting. They are actors even as they are themselves. At the same time, by exposing the workings of production, the drooping boom brings into view another reality to be interrogated―that of the making of the film, the process of making it. Reality and artifice lead into and away from each other like M.C. Escher’s impossible stairways.
As well as dramatic re-enactments, Close-Up presents scenes that at least purport to be straight documentary, most notably recordings from Sabzian’s trial. But how much of even this, one wonders, has been shaped by the director? To what extent have the participants been nudged by Kiarostami’s promptings? His searching inquiry into the nature of the documentary form might in other hands have made for an arid post-modern exercise or, more happily, a light-touched post-modern divertissement. Kiarostami sets his sights higher. A cruder, more conventional film would have portrayed the Ahankhahs as spoilt, self-absorbed members of the bourgeoisie, whose smoothly complacent and privileged existence is disrupted by the proletarian trickster hero or anti-hero; their gullibility would have been mocked, their humiliation crowed over. Kiarostami, though, is careful to emphasize that even the Ahankhahs, in their spacious, comfortable home, are not immune from the economic pressures that weigh so heavily on Sabzian. Mehrdad, as I’ve already mentioned, is unemployed, his peers on his course having fared no better; the other son, Manuchehr, with a degree in mechanical engineering, is meanwhile stuck in an unfulfilling job managing a bakery. Kiarostami, profoundly humanistic, extends his sympathy to the family as well as to their deceiver, whose own crushing despair in the face of his seemingly hopeless grinding penury is given wrenching testimony during the trial. The Ahankhahs and Sabzian are united too by their love of cinema, of its capacity to both transcend reality and bear witness to it, like Stevens’ blue guitar. For Kiarostami, this capacity can be realized in something as ordinary as an empty canister rolling down the street, captured in a justly celebrated shot that is at once hypnotically beautiful and utterly banal, accidental and contrived.* Or it can be realized in a more emotionally charged scene like the magnificent conclusion, which brought me close to tears. The climactic reconciliation is not any the less moving for the nagging questions to which it gives rise―would it, for example, have been possible without Kiarostami’s intervention? Is such manipulation of real people justifiable?** What happens next? The note of soaring hope on which the film ends is qualified by doubt, but such doubt is an ethical necessity to keep the hope from soaring too high into potentially pernicious wishful thinking. And the doubt isn’t enough to undermine the transcendent beauty of the ideal captured in the final image: of an interplay of artifice and reality leading to forgiveness, understanding, compassion and (perhaps) to a kind of truth.
Above: The famous rolling canister.
*Contrast this with that piece of junk American Beauty, in which the Wes Bentley character’s clumsily acted, awe-struck pseudo-philosophical idiocies, delivered in a grating, dull monotone and underscored with showily un-showy music, scupper any serious attempt to find beauty in a shot of a plastic bag blowing in the wind. You can see here the difference between an artist like Kiarostami and a pretentious hack like Mendes.
**Viewers might remember at this point the earlier words of the Ahankhah patriarch: ‘Mr. Kiarostami, everyone who’s become involved in our case so far has tried to use the situation to his own advantage’. Mr. Ahankhah resents the misrepresentation he believes his family has suffered, particularly at the hands of the journalist who broke the story. The complaint might be taken as a warning shot to Kiarostami, who, in the scene, is visiting the Ahankhahs for the first time in the hope of persuading them to take part in his film. Except he isn’t, because the whole scene is a re-enactment, and not one that attempts to be accurate―for also in attendance at the actual first meeting was Mohsen Makhmalbaf (the real one), who is not present here. Was the line then scripted, or suggested, by Kiarostami? I don’t know. But that ‘everyone’ pointedly encompasses the director(s)―not to mention the Ahankhahs themselves.