Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat, 99 mins (15)

The feature debut by an Iranian-born video artist puts a magical spin on the 1953 British-backed coup in Tehran, as seen through the eyes of four women

If you're familiar with the work of the Iranian-born video artist Shirin Neshat, chances are you're no stranger to neck-ache. Neshat's work in galleries often appears on two facing screens – one on each side of the room – so that you're forever craning between images, essentially editing the film yourself.

Her first cinema feature Women Without Men uses only one screen, but Neshat crams so much into it – imagery, plot, cultural references, history – that if your neck is left unstrained, your head probably won't be. Still, art films shouldn't be afraid to cause headaches, and – unmanageably dense though it is – Women Without Men is a striking, audacious debut.

The film is ostensibly a realistically detailed historical drama, although its more dream-like elements suggest a magical-realist feminist fable. Based on a novella by Shahrnush Parsipur, it's set in Tehran in 1953, when an American-led, British-backed coup unseated the country's popular Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and reinforced the power of the Shah – a decisive moment which, the film suggests, marks the beginning of Iran's problems today.

The heroines are four Tehran women. Munis (Shabnam Tolouei), a young single woman, is interested in realities beyond her home, but her domineering brother wants her to marry and live a conservative Muslim life. Her friend, naive and conservative Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni), who can't see why Munis worries her head over politics, is in for a rude awakening. Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad) is the discontented wife of a general; she rethinks her life when an old flame returns from the West and introduces her to Tehran café society, where Camus and democracy are the conversation topics of choice. And the prostitute Zarin – played by the emaciated Hungarian actress Orsi Tóth – starts to undergo a breakdown when she looks up to see that a client's face is totally featureless, as if covered by cobwebs.

The image of the faceless man is just one of many surreal elements disrupting what would otherwise be a straight period drama. Munis achieves her political awakening only after she has jumped to her death, been hastily buried, then magically returned to life. The film's dominant image is of a garden that appears to be located in the real world – Fakhri buys it as a country retreat – but is also a protean dream space, sometimes downright menacing, sometimes a balmy haven. It is first seen in one of the breathtaking virtuoso shots contrived by Neshat and her cameraman, Martin Gschlacht: the camera creeps at ground level along a stream, passes impossibly through a hole in a wall, then soars up above a canopy of trees.

The film is generally strongest when occupying a largely realistic yet stylised register – when Munis, in a black veil, is caught up in two converging groups of white-shirted men, or when a line of protesters runs diagonally across the screen, pursued by soldiers. Neshat and her designers have done wonders in transforming their Moroccan locations into an evocative 1950s Tehran – a complex, cosmopolitan place very different from the stark city of today's Iranian films (Neshat's is a German-Austrian-French co-production).

As well as images of traditional Muslim city life – mosques, hammams – we see a crumbling brothel, elegant highbrow gatherings, exteriors bustling with unrest. Shot in a faded palette verging on sepia, the film's mix of realism and imagination suggests something between the epic historical drama of the Bertolucci school and the distanced, theatrical approach of Greece's Theo Angelopoulos.

Neshat and her co-writer Shoja Azari can't quite carry the quantity of material they take on, and the film feels over-stuffed into its 99-minute frame. We never get to know any of the heroines quite well enough, and their respective fates come across as slightly schematic, Munis becoming politicised, Fakhri recreating herself as an independent woman of culture, Faezeh learning to shake off her sexual and cultural chains, and Zarin becoming a martyr, absorbing the woes of oppressed women. And just as we're moving into the reality of the coup, the film keeps slipping back into apparent allegory. It's hard to take in the complexity of Iran's social changes when we're constantly asked to contemplate the meaning of a tree crashing into a house or – in one of the film's more precious, even kitsch images – Zarin planting a field of paper flowers.

Women Without Men is also much stronger on imagery than it is on acting, although Arita Shahrzad stands out as middle-aged Fakhri trying to hold on to her sexual and social confidence. Even so, while it lacks the directness and visual purity of Neshat's gallery work, this is a passionate, urgent film. Some modish gallery artists have moved into narrative film as if it were a populist easy option, but not Neshat – she seizes on cinema with a furious invention and appetite for imagery. Awkward and overloaded Women Without Men may be, but it's the real thing.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney dives into the strangeness of Wild Grass, the comeback film by French veteran Alain Resnais

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map