Even before being sentenced to house arrest and a 20-year ban from filmmaking, Jafar Panahi's work was acutely concerned with incarceration, focusing on desperate responses to social and economic prisons. From the harried child actress of The Mirror to the persecuted female soccer fan of Offside and the hard-up pizza delivery man of Crimson Gold, his characters have existed in full view of alluring worlds that nonetheless remained off limits, hemmed in by the gloomy reality of their own circumscribed lives. Now, mostly by necessity, Panahi has become his own subject, his angst over being forbidden to create marvelously portrayed in 2011's This Is Not a Film, which found him literally trapped in his own apartment, sketching scenes from movies he wasn't allowed to make. Closed Curtain acts as the next step in the director's personal cinema of captivity, a fully fictionalized, wildly bewildering work which imagines a man at war with his own creative impulse, the dammed-up flow of concepts and ideas brimming over its banks.
Abandoning his last film's quasi-documentary diary structure, Closed Curtain presents an apparent Panahi surrogate (co-director Kambuzia Partovi, playing an unnamed writer), holed up in his beach house after Iran's 2013 ban on walking dogs in public. Dismayed that his tiny, beloved pet is now considered an enemy of the state, the writer draws the curtains and tries to hide. This proves difficult, as the small difficulties of seclusion are overshadowed by a brother and sister duo who barge into the writer's house while fleeing the police. The girl (Maryam Moqadam) remains as the brother leaves to find a car, setting the stage for a semi-comic roundelay in which all of Panahi's pressing anxieties are magnified; state harassment, lack of privacy and creative confusion come to the forefront, presented within an extended battle of wills between the writer and his unwanted houseguest, who threatens suicide and disrupts her host's carefully constructed routines. The back-and-forth dance between closed and open curtains, oppressively dark night and blown-out daylight scenes, confident affirmation of wrongdoing and secretive shame are beguiling enough before Panahi himself shows up at the house, cracking open the film's already fragile sense of reality.
Panahi's entrance throws Closed Curtain into a full-on state of meta-textual limbo, seemingly obliterating the mounting conflict between its two primary characters. Instead, that conflict only escalates. Like frequent collaborator Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi has frequently toyed with the mechanics of reality, using subtle or overt shifts into documentary territory to recontextualize his stories. Yet none of his films have attempted such an overt rupturing gesture, in which the director's arrival in his own film shatters expectations about the narrative while also leaving it intact, retaining the existing power dynamics. The characters, halfway aware of their creator's presence, continue in the same sort of struggle, only now with the threat of government interference replaced by that of a displeased deity in their midst. The girl notes his power to destroy them, but the Panahi depicted here seems solely interested in his own problems, moping about the house, playing down the importance of a recent break-in. He views previous scenes from the movie on his iPhone, then deals with direct intrusions from the siblings of his female character, the two planes of reality uneasily united, while all the while the sea beckons, the specter of suicide equated with the easy out of simply giving up on his work.
So where This Is Not a Film was triumphant, a portrait of a man banned from creating continuing to do so in proud, uplifting fashion, Closed Curtain is its dark flip side, the trauma that ensues from a prisoner stuck with own inexpressible thoughts. Like the author-protagonist of Flann O'Brien's At Swim, Two Birds who's pestered and abused by his own creations, the Panahi avatar here is pressed into a confined space with the animated products of his own imagination. Persecution has been a consistent theme in his work, the product of a repressive state and the conservative public opinion that supports it, but its evil has been vague, never attributable to any single sinister character. Here the entire system is internalized, and Panahi acts as both victim and villain, menacing his characters and himself within a spacious, elegant house transformed into a prison, forced by his punitive sentence to look inward, comprising the entire fabric of his own film.