You think you’ve got problems? In Iranian director Mani Haghighi’s lunatic black comedy “Pig,” our bushy-haired hero Hassan (a terrific Hasan Majuni) is a celebrated filmmaker languishing on a government blacklist, being stalked by a wannabe replacement for his beautiful actress lover (Leila Hatami) who has agreed to appear in his greatest rival’s lavish fantasy film. Meanwhile, Hassan is reduced to arguing for his artistic vision on the set of a bug-spray commercial which he’s imagined as a giallo-influenced musical in which writhing women with antennae vomit pale green jelly. And a serial killer is loose in Tehran, beheading his director friends (including one “Mani Haghighi”) one by one. The paradigm-shift premise that prevents Haghighi’s “Pig” becoming a dark-tinged murder thriller (fine, maybe apart from the self-reference, the ant-women, and the jelly puke) is that Hassan’s biggest issue is how it all reflects on his profile. Given that he can’t grumble about how he’s so unpopular he can’t get arrested — he clearly can, and does — all that’s left to trigger an avalanche of surrealist self pity down the slopes of his mountainous ego is the fact that he can’t get murdered.
His wife Goli (Leili Rashidi) with whom he has a very modern understanding in relation to his still-affectionate mistress Shiva (Hatami) is always on hand to offer him advice. Hois pretty daughter Alma (Aynaz Azarhoosh) acts as his sympathetic PA and organizer. And his mother (Mina Jafarzadeh), though a little dotty and rather foulmouthed for so venerable a matriarch, knows just how to comfort her blubbing son after yet another “lesser” filmmaker is martyred by the unknown killer: “He’s saving the best for last, my baby.”
And “baby” he is. You can tell a lot about a guy from the posters in his bedroom — indeed that the middle-aged, married father of a grown daughter has posters at all already hints toward his juvenile outlook. In this case, a whole wall of Hassan’s bedroom is emblazoned with a picture of AC/DC’s Angus McKinnon, in trademark schoolboy garb, an emblem of both arrested development and anti-authoritarian, rock-‘n’-roll spirit if ever there was one. Hassan is no monster, in fact he’s rather lovable. But he’s also a petulant, wiry-haired man-child (imagine a scrabbly-bearded Stanley Kubrick as styled by Har Mar Superstar) whose most celebrated film was a long time ago, and who seems, for all his posturing about his career, to have less of a driving filmmaking urge than a desire to remain, at all costs, famous.
“Pig,” named for the word the killer carves into the foreheads of his victims, is a profoundly unserious examination of the directorial personality, packed with dream sequences, strobe lighting, costume parties, and overly aggressive games of tennis. At a stretch, it also satirizes gender relations in Iran in refreshingly irreverent ways, with the unprepossessing Hassan being essentially surrounded by, and completely reliant on, the capable, intelligent, beautiful women in his life. And modern social media culture does also come in for a (rather tired) drubbing: Hassan’s petty delusions of grandeur are of course validated and exacerbated by Instagram likes and YouTube video views. But where Haghighi’s delirious last film “A Dragon Arrives!” which also played in competition in Berlin, achieved an almost Zen-like profundity in its completely bonkers metatextuality and postmodern genre deconstruction, the less dizzying, more comprehensible “Pig” feels underwhelming by contrast.
This extends to its craft aspects, such as DP Mahmoud Kalari’s visuals which often feel a little loose and garish, as opposed to the eye-jangling, yet somehow harmonious textures that the noir-influenced “A Dragon Arrives!” trafficked in. Even the music, bar one ridiculous over-the-top-dream-sequence rock song which Hassan shreds on a neon tennis-racket guitar, feels mostly disposable. It contributes to a sense of the film’s insubstantiality underneath all the busy-ness, especially when it bows out on a slightly sour note. Up to then Hassan has been the butt of all of the jokes, which is fine because such an endearingly pompous character deserves it. But in the (surprisingly bloody) finale, the satirical contempt shifts from him to the wider world, which does not feel quite warranted. The fizz goes flat.
The only film of Hassan’s that is mentioned is the amusingly titled “Rendezvous in a Slaughterhouse” (which, incidentally, could be a direct description of last year’s Golden Bear Winner, “On Body and Soul”). It’s unlikely to be much of an omen in this case: “Pig” feels too slight in its satire and too broad in its comedy to be judged a serious candidate for the festival’s top prize. But at the very least, taken as a diptych with the more challenging but also more rewarding “Dragon,” this blizzard of oddity marks Haghighi out as the joker in the Iranian auteur pack, and every gang needs a wildcard.