IN THE CRITIC’S CHAIR | Women Without Men

Visual artist Shirin Neshat brings her photographer’s eye and artist’s sensibility to Women Without Men, a hypnotic and deeply poignant debut feature film. Set in Iran against the political anguish of the US-backed 1953 coup, Neshat’s film intertwines fabular stories infused with sensuous imagery and magical possibility, following the fates of four Iranian women that converge in a mystical orchard. Neshat brings together the personal and political and the real and fantastic with cinematic flair that makes their conventional divisions seem tepid, if not disingenuous. 

Women Without Men drew praise first and foremost for its disarming visuals. In the New York Times, Stephen Holden applauded: 

the fierce beauty and precision of its cinematography. 

Beyond its dozens of viscerally striking images, Philip French, in the Observer, emphasised the film’s potent contrasts – “heavy with symbolism and beautifully composed” – as precisely curated as the best exhibition (or magazine):

the film cuts between a Tehran teeming with demonstrators and repressive police and shot in desaturated colour, and a lush, dreamlike, mysterious garden where the women gather. 

Sarah Kerr, in the New York Review of Books, noted the importance of sound in the film’s most iconic scenes​:

Neshat’s beautiful images, and also her sounds, remain a clear strength … In a short but fierce scene, women in black sitting cross-legged in a courtyard are swaying as they wail, their voices fused into a buzzing sound like a medieval shawm.

Meanwhile, in Slant, Lauren Wissot identified striking contrasts in sound design to match the film’s dynamic visual montage:

The camerawork is always breathtakingly smooth and precise. The same can be said of the visceral sound design, which goes from shouts of street protestors to barely audible prayers in the blink of an eye.

For Noel Murray at AV Club, these finely calibrated affective strategies see Women Without Men take on a psychoanalytic significance – its symbolism finding expression in the sub-rational:

Women Without Men penetrates the most when it swerves around the rational and aims straight for the subconscious.

If Neshat is in fact aiming at the unconscious rather than the rational, she seems to gain a unique perspective on history’s tribulations as a result. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian and So Mayer in Sight & Sound both praised the intricate working of the personal into the political that Neshat’s magical-realist film achieves: 

Shirin Neshat has made a picture with vision, poetry, sexual frankness and historical sinew. It brings together, on screen, the personal and the political.

Neshat has created an idiosyncratic portrait of Iran during and after the revolution that is at once highly stylised and shockingly personal. 

Women Without Men is available to stream as part of TANK’s season Beyond Varda. Subscribe for just £3 a month for access to 40+ films throughout the year.