A man (Kambuzia Partovi) arrives at a house with a holdall. He locks the door, closes the curtains, blacks out his windows and then pulls out of the holdall a dog. We discover that he is a writer and from the television that owning dogs is illegal – and that many dogs are being executed when found.
A knock on the door, a couple enters who claim to be fleeing the police. The man (Hadi Saeedi) leaves, the woman (Maryam Moqadam) seems to come and go – as if materialising and dematerialising within the house at different times.
The house is raided, the writer and his dog hide. Then, as the writer leaves frame during one shot, Jafar Panahi walks into frame – and begins to fix up his house, the window to which has been smashed.
The woman and the writer discuss the fact that Panahi is forgetting them – and that they must make themselves enter his thoughts in order to remain alive.
A second woman (Azadeh Torabi) comes looking for her sister, Melika, who is the woman who arrived during the night and who is talking to the writer. Panahi, however, tells the second woman that he has not seen Melika, nor her brother, the man who came with her.
Workers come and go – and we get the impression that we cannot tell who is imagined and who is real in this movie that seems to be a defiant treatise on the creative process.
Jafar Panahi’s second movie made since his ban on filmmaking for 20 years (after In Film Nist/This is Not a Film, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011), Closed Curtain similarly revels in interiors that are in fact an ‘externalisation’ of the imagination, and fictional characters that are the contents of Panahi’s head.
As the film progresses and as the seeming-fictional characters inside Panahi’s head decide that they do not wish to be forgotten, or die, as a result of Panahi not remembering them, we get the sense that filmmaking is almost an ethical duty.
That is, these people that the filmmaker – which we can expand anyone creative – has in head (and if we don’t like the idea of ‘people’ living ‘inside our head’, then we can simply call them ‘ideas’) have a life – and one owes it to them, as if they were real, to keep them alive. For, the life of the mind is as important as the physical realm in which our flesh circulates.
Indeed, Panahi’s film makes it clear that we cannot tell these apart: if Melika were simply imagined, why would her sister talk to Panahi? And if the writer were merely imagined, then why would he get into Panahi’s car at the film’s end and drive off with him with his dog (leaving Melika, sadly, in the house)?
Panahi contemplates suicide in the film – walking into the ocean and never coming back (shades of Darbereye Elly/About Elly, Asghar Farhadi, Iran/France, 2009). We see this happening, but then Panahi is back in the house. In a film, what is imagined and what is real are inseparable – and the power of film is to make us question precisely what is real, to encourage us to think.
And even though the Panahi character laments the fact that he cannot be as creative as he wants, ultimately, he must be defiant and carry on creating, since the life of the mind, those ideas that live in our mind, are as much us as our bodies – and we must realise these ideas by making films (the French verb for directing a film is réaliser).
The liminal setting of the seaside is important here: the ocean is our unconscious, with its unseen depths. And as much as Panahi (and Melika in her own way) are lured by the ocean towards death, one also gets the sense that all characters that we see, perhaps we ourselves, have come from the depths of the ocean, the unconscious, where ideas turn and flow in unseen fashion.
Images within images: Panahi filming on his iPhone, a camera crew walking into a shot – replaying a moment earlier when the writer lets in Melika and her brother. As Chuang Tzu says:
Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Tzu. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Tzu. I do not know whether it was Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Tzu. Between Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.
What is dream? What is reality? The time of the body and the time of the mind become indistinguishable. As, arguably, do Panahi’s films and those of his contemporaries.
I am thinking about oblique references in Closed Curtain to the work of Abbas Kiarostami, who recently has become a migrant filmmaker working in Italy and Japan.
In particular, Closed Curtain seems to speak to Five Dedicated to Ozu (Iran/Japan/France, 2003), a lyrical contemplation of the sea – driftwood on the waves, ducks walking along the beach, humans meeting by the seaside, with a brief lightning flash reminiscent of ABC Africa (Iran, 2001).
I do not think Panahi is offering an implicit critique of Kiarostami here, though potentially he could be. More, I get the impression that movies are memories, even those of/by other people, and that they constitute who we are. As is said in the film, in the end, life is memories.
Lyrical, melancholy but, as mentioned, ultimately defiant, Closed Curtain is another fascinating work by one of contemporary cinema’s finest filmmakers.