And so it is with ‘Shirin’, a dramatic essay on specatorship which draws on the endless expressive potential of the human face. Recalling the aesthetic and emotional candour of Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’, the film consists entirely of close-up shots of beautiful Farsi actresses as they sit in what looks like a cinema and watch what seems to be a gaudy screen melodrama – a version of the twelfth-century Persian love-triangle poem ‘Shirin’ – which we hear, but don’t see. That Kiarostami has explained how he constructed the film – the sound and the image were produced separately – feels a little like a magician revealing his tricks, as we can make reasonable guesses ourselves by observing the women’s reactions or examining their surroundings.
It must be said that the experience of watching a succession of shots of faces might be taxing for some, but in severely limiting what we are able to see, Kiarostami asks us to appreciate and think about these images. The experience is more rich than appearances suggest. Juliette Binoche crops up briefly as one of the audience members, her baffling presence adding another cryptic dimension to the film. Some have suggested ‘Shirin’ belongs in a gallery, not a cinema, dismissing it as a purely abstract work to be dissected and written about rather than to be engaged with and admired. Actually, it works perfectly well on both levels.