Retouch: a character study about struggle and sudden unexpected freedom

Kaveh Mazaheri, “Retouch” (2017)

A stunning character study of a married woman, submissive to her bullying husband, who is unexpectedly given a new lease of life when he suddenly dies in an accident at home, “Retouch” examines what she actually does with her newfound freedom – and what she does turns out to be rather ordinary, though in real life many of us would do the same. Much put upon by her badgering husband, Maryam (Sonia Sarjani) patiently juggles his demands and petulance with raising their toddler daughter and going to work at a publication agency. One day though, while working with a barbell, the object slips and pins hubby Siavash (Mohammed Ziksari) to his exercise bench on his throat, effectively cutting off his air. Maryam tries to help get the thing off Siavash but he dies agonisingly. Maryam has no choice but to watch him die.

After that, viewers see from the expressions flitting over her face that while Maryam knows what she ought to do, she also seems to realise that she could just flee the situation, taking the baby with her. So she goes to work as usual, popping the child in at the childcare centre, and gets stuck into her work of retouching pictures of female celebrities for Iranian magazines by digitally dabbing black over their decolletages, shoulders and arms so they look appropriately modest. As the day passes, Maryam takes calls from people wanting to know why Siyavash isn’t answering the phone – and she even makes calls and text messages to him herself! Eventually she is persuaded by work colleagues to go home early and see what Siavash is up to. Maryam picks up her baby and pops into the apartment, half-expecting Siavash to be up and about.

The denouement descends into bizarre comedy as Maryam rehearses what she will say to the neighbours and eventually the ambulance officers when they arrive. Whatever Maryam does though, seems completely credible thanks to the superb portrayal by Sonia Sarjani who fully inhabits the character. Her acting is minimal, reflecting the character’s shy and submissive behaviour, even with female colleagues while having lunch together, yet the expression on her face – the camera does many close-up shots of Sarjani’s face – quickly changes from shock and upset to something resembling quiet satisfaction that at last a major burden has been removed, to guilt and shame at having such feelings. Right up to the end, Maryam constantly seems to be rehearsing her feelings, thoughts and actions, so that even when she repeats coming into the apartment and seeing Siavash dead, the repetitions appear entirely credible. The implication seems to be that Maryam appears something of an empty vessel, with no genuine feelings to call her own, because all throughout her life she has had to suppress her real individuality and character and adopt behaviours expected of her as her own – to be constantly “retouching” herself and her life so everything about her agrees with social expectations.

The style of the film is quietly minimal and naturalistic, throwing the spotlight on its lead character Maryam. This approach and the surrounds – director Mazaheri filmed the apartment scenes in Sarjani’s own apartment – set down a situation and environment most Iranians can identify with, all the more to unsettle them when they see Maryam behave “irrationally” when confronted by the sight of her dying husband. Such a confrontation between what a character actually does and what she is supposed to do clashes with a hitherto downtrodden woman’s beliefs about herself and her place in the world, creating a cognitive dissonance within the individual – so it should be no surprise that Maryam acts strangely for so much of the film.

At once minimal and naturalistic, yet bizarre, awkward and funny at times as well, this film is well worth watching for its depiction of an individual who has had to struggle all her life under heavy burdens – and faces a struggle of a very different kind when suddenly those burdens are lifted.

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