One could call this psychological thriller/drama from Iranian director Mani Haghighi a high concept film, as it very much hangs on an intriguing central premise. There have been several films which deal with the idea of doppelgangers, or even clones, and both of these ideas hover around this plot. However, Haghighi takes it one step further by asking us to imagine what would happen if a husband and wife both had doubles and, further, what would happen if these doubles interacted.
The English title is Subtraction but in some ways the dilemma of the film could be better expressed by multiplication. The complexities certainly multiply as the logic of the situation progresses.
The film starts slowly to give us time to get to know (and like) the lead female character Farzaneh (Taraneh Alidoosti, best known for her role in About Elly). She is a conscientious wife who is rather put-upon but who, nonetheless, does her best to keep her husband Jalal (Navid Mohammadzadeh) happy. Modern Iran is going through upheavals around the expectations of women’s roles and this real-life social issue is the subtext here.
Jalal seems to be ‘traditional’, in terms of taking his young wife for granted. When, early on in the film, she glimpses her doppelganger in the street, Jalal initially doesn’t believe her. Worse, he makes her feel stupid for raising it. As the film unfolds, events overtake his scepticism, and it becomes clear to both of them that they have this ‘other couple’ to navigate.
It would be entering spoiler territory to say much further, but the director has fun not only posing counterfactuals but mixing in the real-life consequences of this biologically-impossible premise.
Iranian cinema (or at least the films that we see in the West) are often strong in their moral mazes and the domestic politics and legal framing of gender relations. One thinks, for example, of the films by Asghar Farhadi whose A Separation won the foreign film Oscar. Subtraction goes in a slightly different direction, but it straddles its disparate genres well. Partly because of Alidoosti’s winning performance, we definitely feel for the impossible situation that the young wife is placed in. The script is good and the acting consistently engaging. Overall, it has some lapses in tone and logic, but it remains a highly watchable film well worth catching in a cinema.