Shot in secret at director Jafar Panahi’s house on the Caspian Sea, Closed Curtain is a spotty meta movie that might leave a viewer wishing Panahi could go back to making films that aren’t about himself—which seems to be the point. It begins as a miniature chamber drama about a nameless Iranian writer (co-director Kambuzia Partovi, who wrote Panahi’s The Circle) hiding out at the seaside with his pet dog, before the subject changes to Panahi’s own inability to figure out the characters and resolve the story.
Convicted on a spurious propaganda charge in 2010, Panahi has lived under various forms of house arrest ever since, and is formally banned from making movies until 2030. Even more so than his 2012 documentary This Is Not A Film, Closed Curtain is a document of creativity stifled by repression. Its final half-hour meanders and sputters in order to prove that—even with access to equipment, actors, and a small crew—Panahi is too cut off from society to make a satisfying or cohesive film. It doesn’t work, because he can’t.
In short, Closed Curtain is deliberately frustrating, especially because its early scenes showcase a filmmaker making the most of limited means. (It’s a testament to Panahi’s talent that he manages to make the canine reaction shot—the single hokiest device in narrative filmmaking—work.) Arriving with his dog, Boy, hidden inside of a duffel bag, the writer spends his days at the beach house wrestling with writer’s block and occasionally peeking out through its heavy, symbolical curtains.
One night, two young people—Melika (Maryam Moqadam) and a man she introduces as her brother (Hadi Saeedi)—show up at the writer’s doorstep, apparently hiding from authorities. The brother—who the writer at first assumes is Melika’s husband, and later suspects is her boyfriend—departs, leaving the suicidal Melika in the writer’s care. Soon, the two start arguing, and though the writer claims to resent Melika’s presence, and the unwanted attention it might bring, he ends every argument by jotting notes.
The writer at first functions as a stand-in for Panahi and politically repressed artists in general; keeping dogs as pets is severely discouraged by Iran’s government, which makes Boy into a running, panting, tennis-ball-chasing act of personal resistance. Melika’s arrival into their little world feels artificial and intrusive, and the movie’s later scenes all but acknowledge it as the result of a creative block.
Closed Curtain is bookended by exterior shots framed through the bars of a locked accordion gate. They bring to mind a pivotal scene in one of Panahi’s best-known films, Crimson Gold, while also conveying his point of view as a filmmaker who has been barred from the society he once portrayed. Like the movie itself, the shots constitute less an act of resistance than a chronicle of what could have been but won’t happen.