Subtraction (2022)

Directed by Mani Haghighi

After a confusing interaction in downtown Tehran, a married couple seems to have found their doppelgängers.

Seattle International Film Festival 2023: Film #28

The pervasive rain in this film has the same effect as it does in film noir: that is, heavy enough that it is attacking the characters, conveying a sense of the relentless weight and inevitability of the events assaulting them. It seems to unsettle the characters just as it might the audience itself, who must be far more familiar with sun-scorched images of Tehran.

Subtraction is not content to merely rehash the doppelgänger story and/or make an Iranian version of Dostoeveky's The Double for it makes a real attempt to relocate this longstanding motif to within contemporary Iranian society. For example, in a country where such things are deeply frowned upon, what might it mean to be alone with another's spouse when the other person looks identical to them? The characters often seem relieved (as well as remaining slightly paranoid) that they can simply talk to another man, say, without fear and strict censure. Indeed, perhaps it's a clear comment that these prohibitions are actually for the sake of others, and not in order to save the mortal souls of the people involved. Also of interest is the transposition of doppelgänger idea into a society that has a prominent role for honour — ironically enough, for the concept of 'face'. Adjacent to this, the film depicts the complicated mechanisms that might restore respect in a society as well, a concept that is deliberately undermined in a scene where one of the doubles effectively forges an apology for another.

To the film's credit, the audience is never given an explicit explanation of the doubles and what they might represent. However, the viewer surely led away from any biological or A. I. interpretations with the negative blood tests. (As an aside, it was cute of the film to use a woman doctor to ventriloquise the Iranian state's gaslighting perspective towards the pregnant wife.) The perfunctory mention of climate change in the opening act feels like a red herring as well, even though the family must have been 'doubled' at around the time that homo sapiens dramatically ramped up carbon emissions. The director gives it away somewhat in an interview with E. Nina Rothe when he claims that:

Living in a theocracy splits you in two. You must become two people to survive. A private life, and a public mask. The split seeps into the narrowest crevices of your life, and your every cell produces a simulacrum of itself: a copy that looks just like you. You produce this copy to protect yourself from the brutality around you, but it can turn against you and destroy you.

In the end, Subtraction is no A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), at least in its exploration of precisely how the double can "turn against you and destroy you". It felt a little drawn-out to me, with some of the plot twists a little too predictable from outset too. A few elements in the screenplay felt a little contrived as well: having a car with dual controls felt far too convenient (and then only used once?), and the increased prominence of the son in the final act didn't feel especially smooth.