Some Words on Hedye Tehrani: Hemlock (2000); Dir. Behrouz Afkhami

For the Iranian Film Blogathon: I re-post my review of Hemlock (2000), starring giant Iranian star Hedye Tehrani.

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Directed by Behrouz Afkhami, and starring Hedye Tehrani, Hemlock tells the story of a mid-level manager (played by Fariborz Arabnia) at a factory in Tehran who is being bribed to sell the company to a bunch of exiled Iranians from Los Angeles. He will be made CEO if he accepts the bribe, and there’s a shadiness to the entire venture. His partner gets in a horrible car accident (there is some speculation that it was not an accident) and is hospitalized.

All of this is basically just prologue and context for the real guts of the story which is: Mahmoud (Arabnia) has a wife and kids, and lives in comfort in a middle-class suburb of Tehran. He begins to drive into Tehran every day to visit his injured partner in the hospital. While there, he meets and becomes captivated by a nurse in the hospital, played by Hedye Tehrani. Hemlock is a melodrama, with serious issues on the table, but these issues are handled in a manipulative overwrought style, making the film a straight-up soap opera.

It’s the story of a man who has an extramarital affair with the nurse he meets at the hospital. However, in Iran they have a special name for such affairs: “temporary marriage”, or sigheh. You can get “temporarily married” to someone, which makes all the sex you are having legal and above-board. But with human beings being what they are, sigheh is often used to “cover” one-night stands, people getting married for one day only so that they can frolic about under the sheets. Honestly, I can’t say I blame them. I could use a temporary marriage myself. However, sigheh is extremely controversial, and it’s one of those weird issues where Iranian feminists line up on the same side with conservative mullahs, which doesn’t happen often. Some feel that “temporary marriage” is akin to prostitution, especially with the tradition of the man giving a woman a “settlement” payment when sigheh ends. You can see how that tradition could be abused. Desperate poverty-struck women could find themselves seeking out “temporary marriages”, one after the other, putting up with the sex, in order to get the settlement. It happens. And now that the woman has had sex, she is ruined for other men. Sigheh really benefits the MEN, is the basis of that side of the argument, and it’s a valid point. However, others feel that sex is a normal impulse, in men and in women, and people need some release, even if they are not married yet, so why not make it legal. “Temporary marriage” is a way to keep all sex within the bounds of the law.

Elaine Sciolino wrote an article about temporary marriage which presents the issue pretty clearly. Sciolino wrote the book Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran (excerpt here) – she can be a bit soft on the regime which drives me crazy, all the pictures of her buddying up to the mullahs, but her book is well worth it. She doesn’t just focus on the political, but the personal, although you realize that any issue involving people’s personal lives becomes political in Iran, down to the clothes people wear, and issues involving sex, birth control, masturbation – all openly discussed in Iran. Iran’s birth control initiative is one of the most enlightened in the world. Couples who are getting married are required to take a course learning about different birth control methods.

Temporary marriage is the real topic of Hemlock, but that gets lost sometimes in the top-heavy bossy plot, piling tragedy on top of tragedy, with no sense that it all might be a bit too much. However, it’s an interesting little film, a domestic drama, really, which confronts the issue of temporary marriage head-on. And it was a big hit in Iran, which inherently gives it some fascination.

When I first wrote about the film a couple years ago, I got a comment on the post from someone in Iran, who informed me that after this movie came out, a group of nurses wrote an open letter to Ms. Tehrani, protesting her portrayal of their valuable profession. This goes to show you what a hot topic temporary marriage is, that the fact that Tehrani plays a nurse, involved in a temporary marriage, would cause real-life nurses in Iran to feel implicated and have to defend themselves. I mention all of this because, again, Hemlock has its faults, and is a three-hankie weeper which could cause (and did cause, in me) many eye-rolls, but one of the things I want to point out is that on the ground in Iran (and that’s what really matters) all of this looks very different. Film critics can forget that sometimes. They focus on the various elements of the films, they opine on cinematic language, they rate the films based on what they perceive to be their importance to film history, where it fits in with the rest of the director’s oeuvre, etc. There’s a place for that, I know. But often it means they ignore the more popular fare, or dismiss it, and they are seriously missing out. Watching Hemlock, and picturing protests erupting after it, with Hedye Tehrani being the focus, gives another context to what you are watching, perhaps the most important context of all.

Hedye Tehrani plays Sima Riahi, a modern woman, very unlike Mahmoud’s traditional wife who is draped in the full black chador. Tehrani wears light flowered scarves around her head, Ray Banz, and long light-colored trench coats that show off her lean womanly form. Sima is independent financially. She lives in the real world of workplace, duties, and responsibilities. She is not married. We come to realize that she has a lot more complexity than is first revealed: her father is an opium addict, and she buys him opium on the black market. There are scenes of her careening around in a car with her drug dealer, a nice guy actually, and she’s smoking, and putting the drugs into her handbag … It’s a whole side of her that Mahmoud, attracted to her beauty, never sees (until the end, when it is too late). This isn’t even necessarily a bad thing, it’s the laws of attraction, but in Hemlock you can see the danger in compartmentalizing someone like that, in only seeing what you want to see. It has terrible consequences. “She is beautiful. Therefore she must be good and pure and everything my fantasies want her to be.” How would Mahmoud react if he could see her hanging out with drug dealers, smoking a cigarette, and laughing carelessly?

Mahmoud, who seems like a modern man, reveals himself as traditional. He won’t just fuck her, even though he wants to. He suggests to her that they get a “temporary marriage”, which will license their sexual encounter.

Sima laughs in his face. “You believe in all that stuff?” she says.

A couple words about Tehrani.

Many Iranian directors use non-actors, and that has its appeal, but when you see a script in the hands of an actress who knows how to create a character, and make a scene happen – who knows how to suggest a meaningful subtext … the difference is immediately apparent. Night and day. Leave the hard stuff to the experts. Tehrani is an expert.

Tehrani, a giant star in Iran, perhaps their most famous actress, has revealed herself in role after role as an actress willing to go where the character goes, do what the character does, and not protect herself. She is not particularly sympathetic in Hemlock. She’s a liar. She lies easily and well. She has not told Mahmoud the truth about who she is, and what her life is like. She makes up a story about being abandoned by her first husband to “up” the sympathy factor. It’s manipulative. What is her angle? She sneaks around, meeting her drug dealer buddy. And as the film goes on, the “temporary marriage” she finally accepted begins to grate. And then, it begins to drive her out of her mind (quite literally). She wants to be validated, she wants to be accepted into his life, acknowledged. (Shades of Fatal Attraction: “I don’t want to be IGNORED, Dan.”) His wife doesn’t even know about the temporary marriage. Mahmoud is living a double life.

Tehrani shows up at Mahmoud’s house one day, when he is not there, and sits chatting with the wife, making up a story about how Mahmoud was going to help her get a visa. Mahmoud begins to realize that, by letting her into his life, he has perhaps sown the seeds of his own destruction. He tries to cut her off. She threatens suicide. He pays her the dreaded settlement and she stands in her kitchen, alone, looking at the coins on the counter, weeping. Tehrani is wonderful. The material in Hemlock, soaped-up within an inch of its life, is not worthy of her, but I just love watching her act. She’s unpredictable. Tehrani is never playing just one thing. There’s always a deep coursing river going on beneath her external actions which makes her fascinating to watch.

In one scene, she and Mahmoud sit and have a picnic in a park. She teases him about being a good Muslim. He says that yes, he does pray 5 times a day. She seems surprised. But she loves him. She asks him if he could teach her how to do the daily prayers. You get the sense that she is not interested in it for religious reasons, but as a way of being close to him.

They have a date that night after the picnic. She is going to cook him dinner at her house. We see her shopping beforehand, buying produce, and fish. She then goes to an upscale clothing store, to buy an outfit for her date. The first floor has “modern” clothes, you can see that there are colors in the clothes on the racks. But then she goes downstairs to where the traditional chadors are sold.

Tehrani tries on a black chador, staring at herself in the mirror. We watch the transformation occur – her shape and face obliterated – but because of the context in which she tries it on it becomes unbelievably provocative. She’s not trying on the chador because she wants to seem more devout, and show her devout feelings. Tehrani plays the scene so that we know she’s doing it as a joke. A sexy joke. Mahmoud will arrive at her place, and see a black-clad woman waiting for him, and he will laugh, because it is so unlike her. He will also be turned on. That’s why she tries on the chador. It’s not an expression of religious feeling – it’s a costume that signals a prelude to sex. It’s akin to buying a little sexy Frederick’s of Hollywood number and answering the door in that get-up when your lover arrives. THAT is what Tehrani is playing in the scene.

Tehrani slowly drapes the folds over her face, her eyes mesmerized by her own reflection. At one point, she starts to laugh to herself, laugh at what she looks like, and then, with mischievous glimmering eyes, she pulls the black veil up over the bottom half of her face, so only her eyes are visible. The typical image we have of Islamic women. But look at what is going on in her eyes. She is laughing.

The entire world focuses on the fact that women have to wear veils in Muslim countries. I find that to be a bit condescending, and also missing the point. As though if women could just take off their veils, all the other problems would suddenly vanish. What world do these people live in? It’s not about the veil (I’m looking at you, France.) Women should be allowed to wear what they want to wear, and many of them WANT to wear the veil. There are more life-or-death issues in Iran than what women are wearing.

However, in this moment in Hemlock, with a woman trying on a chador in a state of sexual anticipation and humor, the veil is mocked. Openly. The veil becomes a garter belt, a sexy maid’s uniform, stripper pumps with glass heels. It is a very ballsy scene.

The film is drenched in pathos and is a mostly-unimaginative presentation of a Very Important Issue, but the reason to see it is Tehrani.

She’s something else.

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