Iranian cinema, as presented to the larger world over the past four decades, has mostly been based on a Bazinian commitment to observable reality. In fact, many of the acknowledged masters of Iranian film have built their work at least partially on documentary reality. In this context, the films of Mani Haghighi are quite unique. In his second film, Men at Work (2006), a group of friends on a road trip get sidetracked by a strange rock formation one of the men of the group becomes obsessed with destroying. In his recent film Pig (2018), a washed-up movie director discovers that a serial killer is targeting the luminaries of Iranian cinema, and the protagonist is frustrated that he didn’t make the kill list.
While both of those films traded in dark comedy bordering on misanthropy, Subtraction amps up the high-concept premise for something deadly serious. A married couple in Tehran, Jalal (Navid Mohammadzadeh) and Farzaneh (Taraneh Alidoosti), are struggling, mostly because Farzaneh, a woman with a depressive mood disorder, has had to go off her meds due to a pregnancy. While conducting one of her drivers’ ed lessons, she sees Jalal board a city bus while he is supposedly out of town on business. She hops out and follows him to a strange apartment, and with the help of her father-in-law (Haghighi regular Ali Bagheri), investigates. He goes up to the apartment and comes back down to Farzaneh, having seen something so horrific that he’s rendered almost speechless.
Before long, we find out what the problem is. Jalal and Farzaneh have two exact doubles living across town. Mohsen (Mohammadzadeh) and Bita (Alidoosti) have very different lives. Where gentle Jalal works with his father in a framing shop, Mohsen is a middle manager who, when accused of graft, beats his elderly accuser so badly he’s in traction. Meanwhile, Bita’s charming disposition is in marked contrast with Farzaneh and her struggle with mental illness. Before long, Jalal and Bita meet and become friends, with both parties clearly thinking they want more.
Although Subtraction does have the overall trappings of an Iranian Buñuel film, Haghighi often overplays his hand, keeping certain characters in the dark about the situation much longer than it makes sense. Such conceits are hardly a dealbreaker – Asghar Farhadi often does the same thing – but by amplifying the supernatural elements of the plot, Haghighi demands that the viewer abandon the uncanny human drama we’re watching and shoot straight for the allegorical. Doppelgänger plots always seem to have something on their minds, but Subtraction is quite evidently about the changes people undergo during long-term relationships. Jalal and Bita are the better selves of Mohsen and Farzaneh, maybe even their younger selves before life took its toll on them.
Strangely, the film Subtraction most reminded me of is Time (2006) by the late Kim Ki-duk. In both films, couples grapple with the possibility that the person they fell in love with is gone for good. In Kim’s film, plastic surgery is the complicating factor, implying that the soul may be as pliable as the body. Subtraction is at once more elemental and even more pessimistic. Who we were, after all, still exists so long as someone remembers when we were so much better than we are right now. Subtraction strongly concurs with Hitchcock who once said, “if you meet your double, you should kill them.”
Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 2.