'Subtraction' - TIFF review

With his latest, Iranian auteur Mani Haghighi takes the audience on a rollercoaster ride of a story that sounds like sci-fi, feels like a thriller and is exquisitely fun to watch.
'Subtraction' - TIFF review

On a rainy day in the city, Farzaneh (played by Taraneh Alidoosti) is teaching a chatty, not very capable female student to drive when she suddenly spots her husband getting on a bus. She makes a knee jerk decision to follow him, which leads her to an apartment building, where the man is let into a unit by a woman whose face Farzaneh doesn't make out. And neither do we.

Warning -- If you don't want to know what the film is about, don't read any further. This review contains the key to the film -- a major spoiler.

When Farzaneh discusses her discovery with her husband Jalal (played by the easily recognizable Iranian actor Navid Mohammadzadeh) he denies being there and reminds her that he was miles away on a job assignment that same afternoon.

So begins Mani Haghighi's spellbinding psychological thriller Subtraction, which world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in their Platform section. By kicking us into this rabbit hole of coincidences and improbabilities that, by the end of the film, will have us questioning both what we watched as well as our own lives.

What unveils itself after Jalal's "alibi" holds up is a story about doppelgängers, which of course in typical Haghighi fashion symbolizes something different altogether. But more on that later, first things first.

Double characters played by the same actor, one good and one evil, are a cinematic device as old as cinema itself. The first example that jumps to my mind is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the classic film starring Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman. Under Victor Fleming's direction, we watch Tracy metamorphosis, from the gentle, plain Dr. Jekyll to his evil, flamboyant incarnation as Mr. Hyde. In the 1941 classic we know who is who, we understand their differences because the story is told in black and white, pardon the pun. And the make up and lighting, as well as Tracy's over the top appearance as Mr. Hyde, make it all very clear.

Having long been a fan of Haghighi's work, I have found that the Iranian helmer's genius lies in telling stories that don't paint broad strokes, rather inhabit the nuances of those grey areas where real life is lived. Of course, his movies are always bigger than life and colorful, don't get me wrong. But while Subtraction and the tale it unfolds hardly gives us everyday life events, there is space for our own personal stories, of love lost and trying to change the person we happen to be in a relationship with sprinkled in there. Jalal and Mohsen (played by the same actor) don't look different from one another, yet we always know who is who on the screen. In the same manner, Farzaneh and Bita display differences that are created by the thespian's acting and the brilliant writing by Haghighi and Amir Reza Koohestani, not the costume designer and make up artist. Not to take anything away from the wonderful art direction and costumes and make up on Subtraction of course! Again, more on that too, later.

Most of the film takes place in the rain -- Iran in the rain. There is also water worked into the haunting set interiors, as the constant downpour brings leaks from walls and roofs and people drink often, from large bottles. Italians believe that dreaming about water equals a quest for love. Could be that the characters in Haghighi's film are in constant search of that perfect love, the person they fell in love with years ago, someone they are now stuck with and who only seems to let them down and disappoint. Water is also a great cinematic ploy, which other filmmakers have used to add an extra layer of suspense to their work. Think of Janet Leigh driving in the rain in Psycho, before her famous scene in yet more water, under the shower. Or the 2018 Spanish film Mirage which uses an electrical storm to bring the audience on a labyrinthian ride through past, present and future lives. 

Well, Subtraction does that too, but again, with added layers and more of that welcomed feeling of compelling the audience into thinking about the story, the film and its characters for days, even weeks to come.

I promised to get back to the idea of doppelgängers, and what it all seems to mean in Subtraction. Haghighi himself gives a bit away in his director's statement by saying "living in a theocracy splits you in two. You must become two people to survive. A private life, and a public mask. The split seeps into the narrowest crevices of your life, and your every cell produces a simulacrum of itself: a copy that looks just like you. You produce this copy to protect yourself from the brutality around you, but it can turn against you and destroy you." Although the city where the story takes place is never defined, either by name or even in the interiors -- all created from scratch by set designer Mohsen Nasrollahi -- this feeling of the "doubling, and the catastrophes it creates around me," as Haghighi points out, makes the notion of the city being Tehran apparent and unavoidable. We constantly feel the impending doom of a place, unnamed and not instantly recognizable, that forces people to change, much as big cities do. But even more one imagines, big cities in closed, oppressive societies which force people to create two sides of themselves, one private and one public.

Who is Jalal, and who is Mohsen in the film, is ultimately up to the audience to decide.

The cinematography by Morteza Najafi is absolutely stunning as the film is shot up close and personal, but yet leaves room to the imagination. In case you haven't figured it out yet, I love cinema that makes me think, films that make me guess, and where I, part of the audience, can become an important piece in the puzzle of its successful outcome as a cinematic work of art. A story that allows for different ways of interpreting it, always has me at hello. And again, in my humble opinion, the sign of a great filmmaker is how much editing he or she allows on their work, and here Meysam Molaei has made the story flow, quickly and succinctly. Running just over an hour and a half, Subtraction leaves us wanting more. More Haghighi, more of his exciting films, inshallah, to come.

The art direction by Mohsen Nasrollahi, a new collaboration for Haghighi, and the costume design by Neda Nasr create a world that brings to the forefront the story's psychological thriller feel but also a bit of a sci-fi air, in a Matrix like world. The score by Ramin Kousha, along with sound design by Amir Hossein Ghasemi keep us on the edge of our seat, at once ominous and atmospheric.

Finally, to the title of the film, "Tafrigh" which in Farsi is a word that can mean at once "subtraction" as it has been translated for English speaking audiences but also "differentiation" -- the attempt to distinguish something from something else. It is a pun, as Haghighi explained in an interview which will be published in the next days, but it pushes the idea of getting rid of something, as in four minus two equals two, the mathematical formula of Subtraction, but it is also "a question of trying to distinguish between two things that look alike, the inspiration for the film," as the filmmaker pointed out.

Iran/France, 2022, 107 mins

Dir: Mani Haghighi

Writ: Amir Reza Koohestani & Mani Haghighi

Prod: Majid Motalebi

Co-Prod: Jean-Christophe Simon

Cinematography: Morteza Najafi

Editor: Meysam Molaei

Music: Ramin Kousha

Cast: Taraneh Alidoosti, Navid Mohammadzadeh, Esmail Poor-Reza, Farham Azizi

Intern. Sales: Films Boutique

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