05th Feb2019

’24 Frames’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Featuring: Birds, cows, trees, cats, more cows | Written and Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

24-frames-blu

Completed posthumously in 2017 for its Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who gets an ambiguous credit at the end, 24 Frames is the kind of movie that the oft-mocked phrase “mise en scene” was made for. Except, as far as “movies” go, this one doesn’t move much.

It’s structured as a series of tableaux, and, bar one early view from a moving car, the camera remains rigid throughout. Most of the scenes are of nature – a mountain, a copse of trees, the Serengeti – but some depict urban environments, often through a window. In virtually every one of the 4.5-minute frames – of which there are 24, of course – there is some form of fauna. Kiarostami had a predilection for birds, it seems. But there are also cows, cats (small and big), and sometimes even humans.

If anything, the real star here is not the visual but the aural experience. Ensieh Maleki’s sound design is masterful. Presumably post-dubbed, she captures the exquisite detail of nature, illuminating each scene without missing a beat. This is where the film really comes to life.

These are the kind of vignettes you see in modern exhibitions. In a museum you might wait for the polite amount of time and then move on when it becomes apparent nothing is really happening. I’m not sure anyone – outside of obligated film critics – would be expected to consume all 114 minutes in a single sitting. Perhaps you are meant to absorb one frame a day as a way of cleansing the mind. It is beautiful and peaceful at times, albeit in an Ikea picture frame kind of way, but I’m not sure it’s any more engaging than a pretty slideshow on YouTube.

The issue is context. The images are unattached to any narrative structure, so to uninitiated eyes they would appear to be nothing more than nicely framed images; a calm pictorial carousel to leave on in the background when genial relatives pay a visit. Without self-explanatory content, it is only “art” once we understand the context in which Kiarostami shot the images.

So perhaps it’s useful to know that Kiarostami was stricken by illness in his later years. Watching 24 Frames, we certainly get the sense of someone bored and staring. We might notice something pleasant like a bird twittering on a sea post. But the inherent lack of peripheral vision in the film – a perennial limitation of cinema itself – is suffocating. Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the paralysis of the camera is a reflection of Abbas’s illness: bed-ridden and ultimately comatose. It’s about life persisting around the stillness; life continuing despite ailment or even death.

A laudable overarching purpose, then. If only so many of the frames weren’t so poorly affected and phony-looking. I would be more inclined to watch a huddle of sheep on a frigid mountainside were they not so amateurishly superimposed. Likewise, it would be interesting and unusual to see lions in the rain, if it weren’t for the cheesy Hammer horror thunderstorm effects.

But then, Kiarostami was a filmmaker who was concerned with the dividing line between fiction and reality, so perhaps this is deliberate too. Indeed, on paper the whole enterprise seems like a fitting elegy for this figurehead of New Persian Cinema, with its themes of life and death, and of the unique individual in society (often the frames will feature a lone animal breaking free of the herd). But at bottom it’s still just a series of isolated motion posters that lasts for two hours, and a minor epilogue to a great career.

Special Edition Features:

  • 2K digital master, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • New interview with director Abbas Kiarostami’s son Ahmad Kiarostami, who helped finish the film after his father’s death
  • New conversation between Iranian film scholar Jamsheed Akrami and film critic Godfrey Cheshire
  • New short documentary about the making of the film by Abbas Kiarostami collaborator Salma Monshizadeh
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri

24 Frames is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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