Set in a border backwater in Northern Iran, Babak Jalali’s Frontier Blues follows four men rapidly losing the plot in a land without women.
Far From The Madding Crowd by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
There’s barely a woman in sight in Gorgan, the town on the Caspian Sea where Babak Jalali’s feature debut is set and perhaps not coincidentally, where the director hails from. So it’s perhaps no surprise that the Turkmen there are suffering. There’s Alam, who works in a chicken farm and wants to marry Ana, a Persian girl who lives outside the village. Hassan, a bespectacled simpleton who lives on dried apricots and collects disused number plates. Hassan’s lank-haired uncle, who owns a less-than-chic boutique in town but never seems to sell a thing. And the minstrel, who’s been coerced into posing for a Tehrani photographer and is followed everywhere he goes by a pack of local lads. The unknown world beyond this border town haunts these overlapping stories, cutting the men off from life with only their longing, anger and frustration for company.
Alam speaks a little English. “I am fine. Everybody is fine” – his suffocation is barely concealed. He’s learning English to escape his dead-end job in this nowhere town and sail away to Baku, to the promised land of Azerbaijan where jobs are plentiful and the streets are paved with… Only he wants to take his seen-but-unspoken beloved too. Only her parents refuse. Hassam, abandoned by his parents at birth, flicks through his collection of number plates, musing on the names of faraway towns, such as Gomishan and Gonbad. He’s kept company by Donkey, his four-legged and unnamed friend, and a tape-player that plays Françoise Hardy’s Tous les Garçons Et Les Filles on repeat; an apt summation of his own wretched lovelessness. But you can’t blame a guy for trying, and calling telephone numbers at random asking to speak to the daughter of the house is his crazily ingenious last-ditch attempt at female contact. And his uncle, Kazem, whose wares are always too large for his customers and whose clothing supplier doesn’t even bother with the long journey to Tehran for the latest fashions any more. It’s a loveless little wasteland, being slowly embalmed into a picturesque hinterland of lonely men.
There’s also a solitary minstrel whose wife was filched by a shepherd in a green Mercedes Benz, stolen off a Tehrani lost on the steppes. Wearing a white shaggy telpek, the minstrel who normally sings at marriages is a Turkmen for hire, prodded into sober tableaux by the urbanite photographer. On the hunt for the picturesque, it’s coffee-table rather than photojournalism, but he’s on the look-out for weddings and funerals, for a frisson of Turkmen manners. And as he snaps away at two rigged-up wrestlers, he asks them to freeze, carefully manufacturing the perfect Turkmen image. It’s an obvious parallel to Jalali, returning from London to film the fate of these once-neighbour frontier dwellers. How much is real and how much manipulated is a bit of a cul-de-sac for a fiction, but it’s revealing of the director’s own feelings towards his former countrymen and the burden of representation.
With barely a travelling in sight, Frontier Blues is made up of fixed shots, which literally imprison the characters. They stare out blankly from tables, steps and shops, imploring for a change to come. Littered with blue doors, overalls and wheelbarrows, the melancholy colour palette reinforces the inhabitants’ existential malaise. And it’s an atmosphere beautifully encapsulated by Alam standing outside the house of his obscure object of desire, slowly banging his forehead on her window frame. It’s head-thuddingy futile, and as he gives up his hopes of eloping to Baku, Alam sums up his frustrated disappointment: “I speak a little English. I am fine. Everybody is…” It’s a heartbreaking vacillation, no longer able to muster the courage for his dreams.
With its disparate band of residents, Frontier Blues casts a wry glance over an unturned stone on the Caspian. The border town is a male purgatory, abandoned by women with more got-up-and-went, and as rendered by Jalali, it’s a forlorn, quirky place of humorous incongruity and desperate isolation. But delicately cadenced into a stifling simmer of plaintive pauses, there sure is rhythm in them blues.
Frontier Blues is released in the UK on 30th July 2010.