Directed by Mani Haghighi | Written by Haghighi and Amir Reza Koohestani | 107 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | Carbon Arc Cinema
My positive experiences of Iranian cinema are largely rooted in Asghar Farhadi and Jafar Panahi. Their stories of social realism reflect the challenges of people living in a regime of arcane laws and religious structures, and have made them filmmaking heroes far beyond Iran’s borders.
Subtraction surprised me by being the most purely genre film I’ve seen in Iranian cinema since Holy Spider. It’s about a working class couple (Taraneh Alidoosti and Navid Mohammadzadeh) who meet their doppelgangers, a couple in the upper-middle class (played by the same actors). There’s no supernatural or pseudo-scientific reason explored for this phenomena — the film’s central thrust is how both couples come to terms with seeing another version of themselves living a parallel life.
What compels here are the four central performances by the two actors — as well as a strong turn by Ali Bagheri as the father of one of the men. You get a sense the husband in one couple is attracted to the wife in the other — he’s beguiled by the possibility of an alternative, a fantasy more compelling than the reality.
This is a solidly noir vision with rain falling constantly on the characters, even on days when the sun is also clearly shining, while the interiors are rooms and hallways swaddled in a soft glow. The sense of growing dread is palpable as these people’s lives intertwine.
The film superficially resembles Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy though perhaps not quite so bleakly surreal — but like Enemy the film invites you to plug into its rhythms and internal logic.
I understand Haghighi wanted this film to be about how people in Iran need to adopt a public persona and a private one, double-lives, in order to live with the realities of the repressive theocracy. Those thematic concerns certainly makes this picture’s kinship with those social realists of Iranian cinema more pronounced, it’s just coming at the issue from a different angle.