Published Apr 14, 2015Marjane Satrapi's wildly stylized and oft-erratic comedy-drama, The Voices, has had a divisive effect on audiences. Some have championed its unconventional tone and pitch-black disposition, appreciating its manic mishmash of heightened genre tropes. Others have found the inconsistencies and general tastelessness of the subject matter were exacerbated by Satrapi's perceived inability to clarify whether or not this is a heartbreaking psychological exploration or a sick, somewhat misogynistic comedy. In truth, both camps have their points.
Satrapi's first two films, Persepolis and Chicken with Plums, were adapted from her own graphic novels, which concerned the politics of Iran's changing political landscape before and after the 1979 revolution. Satrapi used these stories to contextualize her identity and the identity of her family in relation to turbulent political change and the juxtaposition of a fundamentalist ethos with the seeming superficiality of western life. The Voices, Satrapi's first foray into adapting someone else's material, was written by Michael R. Perry, a television writer who's noteworthy mainly for writing the highly misogynistic sequel to Paranormal Activity. Inherently, this text appears to attempt to explain or at least identify with the disposition of a schizophrenic serial killer.
Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) works on the loading dock of a bathtub factory. Although socially awkward, he's a mostly affable, upbeat guy whose tendency to talk to his foul-mouthed, cynical Scottish cat, Mr. Whiskers, and dopey, kind-hearted dog, Bosco, is initially a playful cinematic gimmick to dramatize and add levity to the plight of schizophrenia. He acknowledges not taking his drugs to his psychiatrist, Dr. Warren (Jacki Weaver), but save his lengthy discussions with his pets and his inability to read body language, not getting it when Fiona (Gemma Arterton), the office hottie, politely brushes him off, he presents as a functioning, well-meaning simpleton.
As the story progresses and it becomes increasingly clear that the world being presented to us on screen is that of Jerry's delusion or ideal reality — aside from the talking animals, the loading dock of the bathtub factory is bright pink and squeaky clean and animated butterflies cross the screen when Fiona dances — there's an increasing sense of discomfort. Our view into Jerry's world is initially entirely subjective, which is why his eventual decision to kill presents itself as a conundrum for an audience that had already — by merit of the perspective and structure — been asked to identify with a happy-go-lucky underdog.
Eventually, a clear division is made between Jerry's delusion and the objective reality surrounding him. Jerry's apartment is always clean, organized and well lit when we're confined to his perspective; despite our knowledge that he has a decapitated head in the fridge and Tupperware containers full of body parts, this is still the reality we're presented with. When Jerry eventually takes his medication, this aesthetic changes completely, and Jerry's apartment becomes a dim, seedy, mouldy pit covered in animal shit, blood stains and littered with old pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling. Though the glib simplification of a schizophrenic worldview is a tad patronizing, it does work within the confines of this story, considering that dark comedy tends to supersede the occasional dalliance with depressing drama and exaggerate the grisly horror.
What's problematic about The Voices is how it treats its female victims. Though Fiona is a superficial flake, Satrapi's decision to inject comedy into her graphic death and eventual dismemberment has an abject, distancing effect. Even worse is the implication that Lisa (Anna Kendrick), Fiona's much friendlier, likable colleague will eventually suffer the same fate. Oddly, both women are given only the most basic of characterizations; there's never any real understanding as to why Lisa would find someone as peculiar as Jerry attractive, nor is there any real sense of who Fiona is beyond her rather archetypal presentation as a flawed object of desire (an archetype Arterton has played before in Tamara Drewe, Gemma Bovery and The Disappearance of Alice Creed). It's tough to say if Satrapi is doing this deliberately to criticize the comic template of male serial killer perspective (and Perry's script) or if she's genuinely criticizing the sort of women that would make themselves prone to a man that clearly has something wrong with him. After all, both women are ultimately put at risk when they put themselves in a position of sexual availability.
Considering how secondary female characters in western culture are portrayed in Satrapi's other films — they're shrill, vapid idiots — it seems likely that the latter critique was intended, which makes the rather morbid manner in which they meet their end — think The Killer Inside Me— is as upsetting as it is, despite being presented as merely an incidental, dark comedy aspect of the film. We're constantly forced back into the perspective of Jerry, and are eventually told to feel empathy for his inner turmoil, which, considering how the final act unfolds, is played straight.
It's unclear of Satrapi is criticizing a culture that ultimately allows someone like this to function independently or if she's trying to understand what it must be like for someone suffering from such extreme mental illness, but regardless, the balance between victim and perpetrator is a tad problematic and ultimately undoes all of the risky, fun and highly compelling aspects of The Voices. Despite struggling to find an emotional centre to the story, the heightened stylization and sharp disconnect between subjective and objective realities — mixed with the genuinely funny interplay between Jerry and his pets — does make this weird little film rather immersive. It's just a shame it never quite comes together and has such a low opinion of women, even if that opinion was intended to be sarcastic. Unfortunately, no supplements were included with the DVD to clarify this confusion.