When I was a teenager, malleable of mind, I watched The House of Sand and Fog. Echoes of that were stirred by this fim, and two themes from it lodged in my mind to be be fired up by Women without Men: the first was a problematic depiction of ‘The American Dream’ - how Americans struggled to make ends meet – coerced into an uncomfortable synergy with foreign interpretations of the same concept. It made me wonder whether all of humanity was perpetually undertaking a universal quest for happiness - or at least the creation of a personal utopia. Many of the characters in the film seemed to be desperately searching for a home, for contentment, for silence and a place to rest. This theme is revisited in Women Without Men; Munis wonders: “What is it about people, that their hunger, their desires seem to eat everything?”
The second piece of brain shrapnel was the story and the associated imagery, of Massoud’s (Ben Kingsley’s character) existence before he left Iran:
It was a wonderful idea to cut down the [cypress] trees at our house on the Caspian, to have the sea spread before us, to reach infinity with our eyes… Our lives went the way of the sea when the Ayatollahs ripped the soul out of our beautiful country.
I never fully understood the cultural allusions that the film made to Iran, since I had no understanding of the area, or the history, and even now my knowledge on it is still sketchy. The history curriculum in this country is limited, mentioning anything remotely related to the Middle East and the lasting impact British and American intervention had on that area, way before my generation were forcefully made aware of it in the 90s.
Women Without Men follows the metamorphoses of four women from various walks of life within that lost generation, in Tehran in 1953, using the CIA and M16 orchestrated coup that removed left-leaning Dr Mohammad Mossadegh from power, as a backdrop. Mossadegh’s Achilles Heel had been his government’s creation of a policy that nationalized the Iranian oil industry - an industry that had been under British control, via the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) now British Petroleum (BP), since 1913. You will have heard of BP, but Mossadegh? No?? It’s ok… Apparently even Tony Blair (as PM) didn’t know who Mossadegh was or why Iran hated the British so much… (he was obliged to rather sheepishly consult the font of all knowledge, Jon Snow). Apparently, bungled interventions and militarism spurred on by interest in oil provision isn’t, and never was, a new idea. Mossadegh claimed that “long years of negotiations with foreign countries... [had] yielded no results”, coming to the conclusion that “With the oil revenues we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people.” Can’t argue with that.
The director of Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat’s stock in trade is photography, and it shows. She initially aimed to create a series of separate stories based on the 1989 novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, and present them as art installations across the globe, before her bright idea of editing them into the feature film occurred. This feature film (her first) deals with, amongst other things, arranged marriage, rape, prostitution, unrequited love, religion, and death (not to mention Communist and Fascist politics), but in a typically Persian poeticist way, and stretched over a robust historic framework. The film is studded with quotable lines, sparse but emphatic dialogue, features beautifully choreographed action sequences and camerawork that references classical art and literature: Zarin (the prostitute), is discovered floating, Ophelia-like in a pool in the orchard, surrounded by aquatic greenery, simultaneously wide-eyed and comatose; Munis finds a new life as a revolutionary after faking her own death to avoid an arranged marriage, reborn from the earth into which she is buried, Lazarine and determined, and her internal monologues punctuate much of the film, often alongside slow-motion scenes of watery submersion or falling. She falls to her death, petticoats fluttering in the breeze at the end of the film, with the words “Death isn’t so bad. You only think it is. All that we wanted was to find a new form, a new way.” Being a political radical is just as problematic as being a woman.
An elemental metamorphosis is constantly alluded to in the film whether through rebirth, epiphany, cleansing, or changes in dress. The theme of water is one that is visually referred to, in a callback to Islamic and Middle Eastern historical tradition. Islam, a religion born of the desert, understandably places huge importance on water and nature. The Gardens of Babylon, were, according to Dr Stephanie Dalley (Oxford) located near Ninevah, in northern Iraq. Huge feats of engineering prowess were executed by the Sassanians to bring water to pleasure palaces located in arid mountainous regions. In Islamic art, rock crystal holds huge material significance as representative of solidified water, a precious commodity. Unsurprising, then, that Farrokhlagha’s orchard is a place of sanctuary, or that the changes that take place in the female characters are signified, without exception, by them shedding their black shawls to reveal flowery dresses beneath. Faezeh is proposed to by Munis’ brother with the words, “A woman’s body is like a flower. Once it blossoms it soon withers away”; the fall of the regime that fosters growth in the tradition of art and culture, or the dashing of romantic hope, or gender emancipation linking with the sickness of the orchard, and the death of nature are not coincidental.
After the upheaval, and the catharsis experienced by individual characters (and by proxy, the viewer,) all that is left is society - the everyday. The music ends, the party is over, and we are given the impression that despite the finite nature of human life, these stories hold universal piquancy, and humanity is composed of individuals in a cyclical search for belonging, and the unerringly predictable failure of humanity to achieve it: "In this turbulence and noise, there was almost silence underneath. The sense that everything repeats itself over time. Hope. Betrayal, Fear.