SUBTRACTION :: TORONTO STAR :: REVIEW “They don’t just look like us. It’s like we’re clones.”
By Adam Nayman Special to the Star, Toronto Star, Friday, June 23, 2023
A husband and wife see a couple who look exactly like them in ‘Subtraction’ — what could be more terrifying?
A standout at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it competed for the prestigious Platform prize, “Subtraction” is the work of Iranian writer-director Mani Haghighi.
Where “Subtraction” excels is in its subtext, which manifests in the subtle — and occasionally — brutal contrasts between the two households, particularly when it comes to gender roles and expectations.
From “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to “Enemy,” the doppelganger film is a genre with plenty of existential heft. After all, what could be more destabilizing — or terrifying — than encountering your own mirror image?
“They don’t just look like us,” says pregnant driving instructor Farzaneh (Taraneh Alidoosti) of the apparent carbon-copies of herself and her husband Jalal (Navid Mohammadzadeh) who she’s spotted living in a different section of Tehran. “It’s like we’re clones.”
Seeing is believing: after getting a peek at the look-alikes in question, skeptical but sympathetic Jalal can only agree that something spooky is going on. What he’s supposed to do about it, however, is another question entirely.
The film — which plays at the TIFFBell Lightbox until June 26 — takes the form of a lean, pressurized urban thriller, complete with a late nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” (1951), with which it shares a theme of criss-crossing fates. Without treading too far into spoiler story, it can be said that Farzaneh and Jamal not only meet their opposite numbers — a less happily married couple named Bita and Moshen, who have a child and financial problems — but become dangerously inveigled in their lives.
The plot of “Subtraction” depends on the quartet’s superficial interchangeability and the possibility of deception that enters into their arrangement: how well do the women know their husbands and vice versa?
Such is the stuff of suspense filmmaking, but where “Subtraction” excels is in its subtext, which manifests in the subtle — and occasionally — brutal contrasts between the two households, particularly when it comes to gender roles and expectations.
One common denominator for significant Iranian cinema is its commitment to social portraiture, and the picture that emerges in “Subtraction” is of a country riven by divisions of individual and economic power that only deepen behind closed doors; thatHaghighiwas denied permission to fly to a screening in London by government authorities places him alongside other Iranian filmmakers imperiled for embedding political statements into their artistry.
Allegory is a tricky thing in cinema: get too abstract and an audience is liable to tune out, especially if a story lies culturally or geographically outside its frame of reference. “Subtraction” closes that distance through careful craftsmanship and excellent acting — both leads show real, shape-shifting finesse in their dual performances.
It also excels through the decision — risky and ultimately rewarding — to never fully clarify the uncanny nature of what’s going on: there are no explanations or rationalizations for how two sets of identical spouses could exist or even if their situation is an isolated case.By treating his surreal scenario matter of factly,Haghighiparadoxically enhances its believability, to the point that we come to care more about the fates of the characters than the enigma of their mutual existence. Our bewilderment, meanwhile, turns us into their doppelgangers — an unsettling place to be.
Correction — June 23, 2023: This article was updated to correct the spellings of writer-director Mani Haghighi and actor Navid Mohammadzadeh’s surnames.
“Subtraction” opened Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and plays until Monday.