On the international stage and on the festival circuit, Iranian cinema is not immediately associated with genre. The impish, richly ambiguous films of Abbas Kiarostami and the humanist social dramas of Asghar Farhadi have loomed largest in terms of defining the national canon. But while Fereydoun Jeyrani’s “Asphyxia” — a contemporary Iranian take on classic film noir and Gothic horror — doesn’t seem like an obvious hybrid at first, it ultimately makes a compelling case for itself: As the movie progresses, it becomes thrillingly clear that the cruel gender politics of those sinister genres can map themselves in mutually illuminating ways onto an inquisitive critique of female oppression in contemporary Iran.
Still, “Asphyxia” is, first and foremost, an accessible, entertainingly blackhearted, unapologetically Hitchcockian thriller, with a social subtext lurking for those who look. It also manages the tricky business of plausibly updating its throwback genres while keeping the aesthetic — here shot in whispery, shadowy black-and-white by DP Masoud Salami — firmly in the candles-in-corridors register. Creating Gothic texture and intricate noir plotting in the age of cellphones and intercoms is no easy task. But Jeyrani imagines a Tehran of thunderous snowstorms and power outages, where a phone’s torch app becomes as atmospheric a source of light as a guttering gas lamp, while the solo instruments of Karen Homayounfar’s moody score pick out nervous melodies over minimalist backgrounds.
The opening scene, a flashforward to the film’s ending, seeds this new-fangled/old-fashioned dichotomy, when Sahra (Elnaz Shakerdust), mysteriously bloodied and limping, drags herself into a spartan apartment and sits down opposite an incongruous cuckoo clock. She pulls out her cellphone, which is damaged or waterlogged, and in frustration throws it behind her, at which point the focus changes to a table in the foreground, where lurks an old-school telephone of the kind on which Humphrey Bogart might have called Lauren Bacall.
Then it’s 20 days earlier and Sahra, the efficient, watchful head nurse at a mental institution, is being introduced to Masoud (Navid Mohammadzadeh), who has just committed his rich, beautiful, catatonically unresponsive wife, Nassim (Pardis Ahmadieh). Once the women are alone, however, Nassim confides to Sahra that she’s faking insanity in order to get away from her suddenly abusive and violent husband. And so a strange dynamic evolves in which the pale-eyed, freckled Sahra, plain under her uniform’s wimple, is the Jane Eyre befriending the apparently mad wife of Masoud’s brooding, glowering Rochester — a Gothic impression born out by the hospital’s frequent power cuts, which necessitate the use of candles and oil lamps in its echoey passageways.
But Sahra may not be the timid, purehearted Joan Fontaine character she first seems, despite her crippling fear of the dark. She has surprisingly hard-headed conversations with her downstairs neighbor and friend Zohreh (a wonderful Mahaya Petrossian, in the kind of brassy, worldly role that Susan Hayward would have killed in) about marrying some old man purely for the financial security and social status it would accord her. And as she becomes more attracted to Masoud, with his hypnotic obsidian eyes, she starts to cross moral boundaries to get the life that she covets.
Part of the fun of such a boldly referential film is in spotting the allusions and relating characters to their classic archetypes. Sahra’s nyctophobia is akin to James Stewart’s fear of heights in “Vertigo,” both a character trait and a plot device. Nassim is a version of the imperilled wife from “Suspicion” or Cukor’s “Gaslight.” And with its institutional setting, offbeat love triangle dynamic and general blackhearted twistiness, the film owes its biggest debt to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques,” which it honors without ever directly ripping off.
But it’s not just a collection of hat-tips either. “Asphyxia” oxygenates its genre with a subtle but telling reversal of traditional gender roles. Mohammadzadeh exudes such masculine gloweriness in his many (perhaps too many) inscrutable close-ups, that it’s almost possible to miss that he essentially operates as the femme fatale. To Sahra, who is neither ingenue nor villainess but actually the patsy, he is the seductive embodiment of all the glamor her small life lacks. It’s just that what this homme fatale can offer a single woman in modern Iran is not simply sex (though there’s certainly an element of that) but a level of social validation that’s impossible for her to attain otherwise — and it’s a prize for which women are willing to destroy themselves and each other. Right up to its satisfyingly macabre finale, “Asphyxia” is about women trapped, often literally, in institutions and situations controlled by men. And in the best tradition of fatalistic, moralistic film noir, attempts at escape will not go unpunished.