The first thing Marjane Satrapi will tell a visitor is that she has a medical condition and absolutely must smoke. Satrapi, who lives in Paris, is in New York conducting more press interviews for her utterly engaging first movie, "Persepolis," than she'd like to count.
"Persepolis" is an animated film set in Iran, Austria and France, whose main character is a young girl named, not surprisingly, Marjane. Nine at the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Marjane is an outspoken child who loves Bruce Lee and doesn't hesitate to tell her teachers what she thinks of them and their fundamentalist propaganda. She listens to the Bee Gees, then Iron Maiden, and wears a jeans jacket with "Punk is Not Ded" written boldly on the back.
Not exactly behavior appropriate to a growing young lady in the Islamic Republic of Iran, so Marjane's parents send her off to school in Austria. But Austria is cold and alien, her fellow students are pretentious nihilists, and she returns to Iran, where she marries early, too early, and makes the wrong choice. She eventually ends up in France, single, which is where the real-life Marjane lives now.
2"Persepolis" is based on Satrapi's international bestselling graphic novel of the same name. ("Graphic novel" is a term she hates, by the way, since it suggests pornography, and Persepolis was a city in ancient Persia.) The film opened in New York and L.A. on Dec. 25, and will be followed by a national rollout in January and February. It has already generated enthusiastic buzz, earning a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign film, and honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
It's France's entry for the Oscars, and critics at the Cannes film festival, where "Persepolis" won the jury's award, and the New York festival, where it was showcased on closing night, praised its humor, warmth and defiant stance on life, love and politics, as well as its evocative, boldly drawn characters.
The voices are well-known French actors: Catherine Deneuve plays Marjane's mother (Satrapi has said that she was so nervous before directing Deneuve that she didn't eat because she thought she'd throw up). The adolescent and adult Marjane is played by Deneuve's daughter Chiara Mastroianni.
Satrapi is 38; she has dark, curly hair and gestures with her hands as she speaks. Plopping into an oversize armchair and lighting up a cigarette, she adamantly insists her book is not "anti-Islamic."
"First of all, I'm not revealing stuff that nobody knows, there have been hundreds of documentaries on this. I'm against all fanatics -- Muslim, Jewish, Christian, secular, Communist fanatics. This is about repression, the idea of, 'If you don't think like me, you are my enemy and so I have to kill you.' This idea doesn't belong to a special place."
The Iranian authorities protested the film's inclusion at Cannes in a letter to the French embassy in Tehran, which Satrapi dismisses with a wave of her hand, as if to say, 'Well, of course this is what they'd do.'
"It was nothing sensational," she adds, and cites an example of the film's support among some Islamic communities. "Persepolis" was screened in a Paris suburb, around the time of Cannes.
"Most of the population there are Muslim, and they're poor," she says. "A thousand people came, and they were applauding for one hour. They saw the humanity in the story, its personal point of view. They understood I'm not judging. I'm asking questions."
Satrapi has not been back to Iran since before the first installment of her novel was released in France in 2000. If she were to return, she's not sure what might happen. "The problem is, there's no rule book. They don't tell you, 'No, you can't do this.' But they throw you in jail for doing it. So I prefer not to go."
Which is not to say she doesn't miss her homeland. "At the time we made this movie, I was very nostalgic," she says. "The movie's whole structure is based on a flashback, a woman sitting in an airport in Paris, and she doesn't have a ticket to go home to Iran."
The novel is in several parts, with many, many scenes in the life of young Marjane. The filmmakers - Satrapi collaborated with Vincent Paronnaud, a major figure in the underground comic book world - chose "exile," says Satrapi, as "our axis. In terms of story structure, this exile justifies whatever is going to happen next."
Satrapi drew all the characters first -- 600 separate figures -- and was filmed acting out the scenes so that her team of animators, drawing by hand, could get a richer picture of how the movie would move. "My friend Vincent and I had a team of 100 people," she says. "We had lots of grey, lots of texture. If it were only black and white, people would either get a big headache by the end - or an epileptic episode.
"Computers make things too perfect," she adds, slicing the air in front of her with hands parallel for emphasis. "And neither Vincent nor I know how to type. We draw, we are illustrators, we know pen and paper." She stops, and it's clear a funny image has popped into her mind. "Can you imagine making your own movie with a thousand people in the room, you come into the studio, and you don't know what the [expletive] they're doing?
"Back in the 1980s, at the beginning of the computer era, Milton Glazer, the graphic artist, described the difference between using the computer and making something with your hands," she adds. "It's like the difference between masturbating in front of a photo and making love to a lady, he said." Satrapi laughs, and throws up her arms to emphasize the point. "That's me. I need a very tactile experience. I need the sensation."
By Nancy Ramsey
By Nancy Ramsey