For better or worse, Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi definitely does not want to be defined as a film director by her celebrated debut Persepolis - an internationally acclaimed feature-length animation, co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud, adapting her own successful graphic-novel memoir about growing up in Iran after the Islamic Republic came to power. She switched to live action for the follow-up Chicken with Plums, also co-directed with Mr. Paronnaud and adapted from her own work. And just as that film was a stylistic and narrative departure from Persepolis, so is The Voices, an American-backed, Germany-shot project she did not initiate (Mark Romanek had been mooted to direct it).
In many ways, The Voices seems custom-made for Ms. Satrapi's approach to her unconventional heroes and heroines, and she shoots this strange tale with the same guts, abandon and playfulness common to the previous films. But is she playing Michael Perry's weirdly Charlie-Kaufmanesque script for laughs, for genre, for seriousness, for grotesque? What exactly is she aiming at with this fascinatingly weird, completely off-key film?
Outwardly an all-American boy next door, Ryan Reynolds' Jerry Hickfang comes home every night, from his work in the shipping department of a bathtub company in a small Midwestern town, to a small flat above the local bowling alley, to spend time with his pets. It's when the cat starts to speak in a Scottish brogue that you start understanding what the title means. And his regular visits to a psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) who insists he must take his medication, plus his unhealthy interest in the "exotic" Englishwoman (Gemma Arterton) working in the accounting department suggest there's something darker and deeper at work inside him.
There's really nothing remotely normal in Jerry, as Mr. Perry's script and Ms. Satrapi's visuals take their time in teasing out. Mr. Reynolds is game for the role, and he is enormously helpful in conveying that the character is not so much deliberately psychotic or vicious, rather scarred by social norms and misunderstandings that have damaged him beyond repair.
But you can never really capture what is it that the director is holding out for: is she undermining or inverting the traditional structure of the slasher movie or of the serial killer thriller to put the viewer in the mind of the villain? Is she trying to create an inverted or reversed fairy tale about the moral dubiousness of the concepts of good and evil, though unsure on which side of the continuum it falls on? Is she aiming for some sort of dark, hallucinatory satire of conformism? Probably the best thing about The Voices is that Ms. Satrapi doesn't really choose; she simply follows the story wherever it leads her, and it leads her into some really dark corners she doesn't shy away from, entering a strange nether region of hallucinatory, incomprehensible madness that refuses to give the viewer any logical or reasonable anchors to hang on to.
It's a film that intrigues and keeps you watching as much as it repels and makes you wonder where it's going; it's a surprisingly genre-defying object that proves just how much Ms. Satrapi is into taking risks and making films that don't fit people's perception of her work. Does that make the none-more-black humour and the gory, edgy satire of The Voices worth a look or a recommendation? I'm not sure, but I am sure this is really like nothing else I've seen all year so far - and that alone is enough to set it apart from everything else.
USA, Germany 2014
Cast Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver
Director Marjane Satrapi; screenwriter Michael R. Perry; cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (colour, widescreen); composer Olivier Bernet; designer Udo Kramer; costumes Bettina Helmi; editor Stéphane Roche; effects supervisors Antoine Marbach, Damien Stumpf and Manfred Büttner; producers Matthew Rhodes, Adi Shankar, Roy Lee and Spencer Silna; production companies 1984 Private Defense Contractors, Mandalay Vision, Studio Babelsberg, Vertigo Entertainment, AOM productions, Dreiundzwanzigste Babelsberg Film, Elfte Babelsberg Film and Arri Film & TV Services in association with Panorama Media
Screened March 21st 2015, Lisbon