As I put it walking out of the theater: "It combines my two favorite things - animation and French cinema. How can I not love it?"

Thus is Persepolis, adapted from children's book author/illustrator Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir, a book that is not, perhaps, my third favorite thing, but certainly something that I like quite a lot. It's without much surprise but no small amount of relief that I find it has not just survived the transition, but has become something significantly different, as blissfully engaged with its own movie-ness as the book was with its comic-ness. Given that Satrapi herself co-wrote and co-directed the film with comic-book artist Vincent Paronnaud, it's not hard to see why: she's already made Persepolis the book once, why should she bother making it again? As sometimes happens, an artist at the peak of one medium has a unique insight into what makes a different medium tick.

Yet in Satrapi and Paronnaud's hands, cinema isn't entirely separate from the graphic novel. Of course, they're not inherently all that different to begin with: both use images to tell a story, augmented by words but not ultimately dependent on them, and both consist of a series of images presented in a specific order (and in Satrapi's book, the parallel is even clearer: unlike some of the more expansive artists in the field, never uses non-rectangular frames). One of the particular triumphs of the film Persepolis is that it uses these similarities to point out the essential differences between the two. But I am getting at least a bit ahead of myself.

The story is mostly incredible for how utterly un-incredible it is; one of the keys to Satrapi's memoirs, whether drawn or filmed, is that she doesn't regard herself as particularly special - one of many little girls growing up in a mostly secular Iran before the 1979 revolution, one of many children sent to Europe to escape the excesses of Islamic fundamentalism, one of countless immigrants whose experience in the West was one of frustration and miscommunication. Based as it is in a series of extremely specific incidents, Satrapi's life story still feels more representative than particular.

Of course, documenting the experience of one woman's life growing up is only part of Persepolis, and perhaps not even an important part. As the author said in her 2002 introduction to the first volume of the graphic novel:
"...this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth...I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoing of a few extremists. I also don't want those Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various repressive regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and flee their homeland to be forgotten."
And so, Persepolis, in any medium, is first a story in praise of a misunderstood country, a story that is most especially important in these days of increased Western (i.e. American) sabre-rattling.

To its credit, the film never goes for the simple and arthouse-friendly tack of "goddamn Americans, butting their noses in and tossing arms this way and that and making things worse." Indeed, except for a brief scene recapping the British influence in establishing the Shah between WWII and the 1950s. Finger-pointing is less important than documenting the state of life in the country, and Satrapi does this with great humanism and warm humor.

The differences between the film and the book, in a narrative sense, are mostly those of tone and perspective. The events are largely identical, but the film is a quite a bit more openly funny, and a great deal less angry. Frequently, this is the result of Satrapi redefining what these events mean to her; a conspicuous example is the matter of her first major heartbreak, which the book viewed more in terms of her ex's monstrous selfishness, while the movie is more concerned with how the author convinced herself of his monstrousness. But as much as anything, the shift in tone is the result of compressing for space; where the book could linger for pages on the Satrapis' Jewish neighbors and the errant Iraqi bomb that leveled their home, for example, the film contents itself with one shot of a hand crawling out of the rubble. At times, this compression leaves holes in the film (the casual viewer can be forgiven for wondering why God and Marx appear together in a dream sequence, or why they look so weirdly similar), but generally it leaves the film lean and propulsive.

Then again, the book is close enough to the film that the latter repeats one of the former's main flaws: the telling of Satrapi's teenage sojourn in Vienna is a bit clunky compared to the sequences detailing her life in Iran, while this interlude gives the film an undesirable repetitive structure that the book avoided by dividing the story into two volumes just after her first departure. I can't help but feel that it's a bit wrong of me to blame an author for living a life that doesn't seamlessly fit into a narrative structure.

Of course, in an animated film more than any other, the story is only half of the battle: the imagery is as important if not more so. Here, the film Persepolis shines, distinctly outstripping its source. The comic, make no mistake, was a visual marvel, but it was not particular adventuresome: Satrapi's clean black-and-white drawings are immensely appealing but the formal rigidity of her work is part of the point. Whereas the film feels like nothing else I've ever seen, not in a feature length project, at least. For this we can blame the children's movie ghetto that animation lay dormant in until about two decades ago - no matter how elegant a Disney film might look, it was still derided as a cartoon. Formal experimentation was left for avant-garde directors whose work could not support anything heftier than a short film.

Persepolis doesn't meet even the most generous definition of "avant-garde," but it does play with the medium in ways that I personally haven't seen often, if ever. It's particularly apparent how the film honors its roots in the comic: unlike most traditional animation, which seeks to mimic the classical Hollywood style of depth and action around the "camera," Persepolis hardly ever suggest a world beyond the frame. Indeed, it often doesn't even suggest a world up to the frame - many scenes are surround by a fuzzy black iris effect. The overall feeling is that we're watching a series of flat tableaux, a sense aided considerably by the contrast between background and characters. Typically - not always - the backgrounds are drawn with a great deal of texture and greys, while the characters are invariably shiny cel figures with smooth lines and solid blocks of monochromatic blacks and whites. More than in most animated films, the characters are clearly apart from the backgrounds.

This could be distancing; it isn't By framing the story as the recollection of an adult Marjane waiting in an airport (something not done in the novel), the flat tableaux are made less Brechtia and more psychological; they are a subjective representation of how an illustrator moves through her memories. The effect is not quite like any other film I can call to mind: it is too fluid to call it simply a moving comic book, but its style is so particular that it's hardly a traditional animated movie. Better to call it an exceptionally satisfying adaptation of a great story that clicks on ever level, visual and narrative, with a sort of inventiveness that seems intoxicated by the liberating possibilities of cinema.