Perfection: In Defense of Golshifteh Farahani's Character in 'Paterson'
by Alex Billington
December 27, 2016
Jim Jarmusch's new film about a poet in Paterson, New Jersey is one of my favorite films of 2016. I saw it twice at the Cannes Film Festival, wrote a glowing review (calling it "the rare perfect film"), and caught it again in Berlin a few weeks ago. As expected with pretty much every film that premieres to rave reviews at a festival, there will be a backlash. One of the most vocal complaints I've been hearing about Paterson has to do with the lead woman in the film, the wife of Adam Driver's bus driver character. She is played by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani and has a major role in the story, as he wakes up with her every day and she encourages him to publish the poems he is writing in his notebook. I believe she is the perfect character, in a way that is off-putting perhaps (she's "too" perfect), but it still works for this particular film. Let me explain.
Paterson is an odd film (compared to most) because there's so much that could happen in it, but it doesn't happen. That's part of what makes it so sublime (and unlike every other film out there). Every day, Paterson walks his wife's English bulldog to a bar and leaves him sitting outside. In one scene, some "homies" drive by and chat with him about the pooch being "dog-napped". For the rest of the film, you're wondering when poor lil' Marvin is going to be dog-napped. But that never happens. This is part of the brilliance of Paterson, as it allows viewers to appreciate the world around him that is influencing him, without actually dealing with any of the cliche occurrences that most scripts feel obligated to toss in. It's poetic perfection. It speaks so much about life without having to show us the bad things that happen in life. This goes for his wife, too.
Aside from the fact that an American bus driver is married to a charming Iranian woman (even though she's named Laura), which is bold enough of a rare reflection of the diverse world we live in, she is also a creative genius. Their relationship seems perfect. And yes, I've read complaints that this doesn't reflect reality, but that's nonsense. They don't fight, they don't bicker, any potential disruptions are talked about or handled with a deep compassion for each other. That's why it is so beautiful to watch them, especially her. Desiring relationships where there is arguing and disagreement because it is supposedly healthy or normal is, in my opinion, actually unhealthy. It encourages and perpetuates the troubling notion that not being able to get along is better than being able to empathize and understand and deal with problems. Which is also why it's so refreshing to see a relationship on screen that does work so well, that is so simply in sync and full of love.
Driver's character doesn't get angry or upset when she professes her desires to chase some dream, whether it's to become a musician or get rich selling her cupcakes. When she spends money they don't really have to chase one of these dreams, he doesn't demand she return it or tell her she's wrong or anything. How great is it to actually see a relationship where the man supports the woman and her passions, and encourages her to dream big? How rare is it to see that kind of unconditional support presented on the big screen through an interracial relationship? This is what I love about these two. In return, she encourages him to publish his poems because she knows they're beautiful. She pushes him only because she has tried before and he hasn't done anything, and she knows his poems so well. They both inspire each other. It's an example of a near perfect symbiosis. The official synopsis on the distributor's website sums up this nice balance well:
"He goes home to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). By contrast, Laura's world is ever changing. New dreams come to her almost daily, each a different and inspired project. Paterson loves Laura and she loves him. He supports her newfound ambitions; she champions his secret gift for poetry."
I love the way Laura expresses her creativity, and I love that Jarmusch fully embraces that. You can see her distinct black & white style show up in almost every scene. There are key moments where it plays into the story (the curtains, her cupcakes), of course, but it's the little touches everywhere else that build her into a complete character. It's rare to ever find a character in a film (especially a woman) that is so fully fleshed out, so fully embraced and complete. It's not like Jarmusch and his crew came up with a few paintings and designs to represent her, they made her vision and her style feel so real in every second of the film. And I don't care if you think her work sucks, that's not the point. If someone really thinks that, it's a reflection of their own tastes and inability to appreciate other people's passions and creativity. Not a criticism of the film.
I've read some of the complaints about Laura and I've tried to think more about the issues that others have with her. But I don't get it, I just don't, I can't see what they see. She is so different than any other character in a film this year, and yet so perfect and wonderful and expressive and passionate. And perhaps that's why I think she is so deserving of appreciation and not criticism. That also may be exactly why so many dislike her. She is too perfect. I can understand that complaint, but I also feel that's not a valid criticism. Sure, she's not "flawed like we all are", but actually she is flawed. She chases fleeting dreams and spends money that they don't really have. And instead of showing how bad that can be, Jarmusch allows us to admire that and see how it might inspire others. We should encourage each other, not discourage. We should admire that a film shows us this kind of balanced, symbiotic relationship and doesn't force any terribleness into the story.
This review explains how their relationship is also poetic - from Sophie Monks Kaufman at Little White Lies:
"Love is a motif because of Paterson and Laura’s relationship. It’s not the usual movie love. There’s no sex, plenty of distance, and still it is love. They both graft at maintaining their relationship in ways so contrasting that it’s almost conflict. Harmony is not to be taken for granted in Paterson. Every conversation in the film hums with a meaning so refined that it’s only just palpable. Seemingly casual exchanges are rooted in a desire to show individuals connecting. For these characters, effort is constant, banality inevitable. And so, in the moments that erupt out of nowhere, when there is a chance to really speak to a person in need and in reach, a small gesture is the stuff of poetry."
I expect that some might say this entire defense is my "male gaze" and can't be fully considered because I'm not viewing it from her (a woman's) perspective. Yes, I am not a woman, so I can only present my view as a man. But I still call bunk on that claim. I never once commented on her looks or attractiveness. Instead, I commented on their relationship and her characteristics, and the aspects of what makes these two unique; and why it's so refreshing to see such a passionate, strong, unique woman on screen in a film as inspiring (and joyful) as this one. Maybe it's okay, for this once, to have a character that is allowed to be creative and still interesting and not stifled or controlled by her husband. Instead, they balance each other out perfectly, they give each other energy, and Jarmusch shows this by making her such an important part of the movie.
The real reason I felt compelled to write about Laura is to continue to express my love for this movie. I really do believe it is a perfect film, meaning there's nothing about it I would change. I don't want her character to have even more flaws, or for the two of them to have a fight, or for there to be other problems with their relationship. Again, that's the brilliance of this film - it defies the typical cinematic logic of having all kinds of things happen to them, and it's made in the model of a poem. From the twins who appear throughout, to the day-by-day structure, to the flow of the story. Jarmusch reaches deep into our souls and allows us to understand and experience the life of a genius poet by bringing us into the world of Paterson. A simple, but profound world. Everything around him inspires & influences him, all leading to his true awakening. A-ha.