On October 22, Shirin Neshat’s highly-anticipated short film Illusions & Mirrors made its North American debut at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, as part of the first Montreal Biennale. It stars Natalie Portman as a wide-eyed ingenue who follows a mysterious, ghostly figure across a deserted beach and into a dilapidated mansion where she makes a startling discovery about herself. A dream-like tribute to original Surrealist filmmakers like Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Luis Buñuel, it’s an eerie, haunting work.
But it is also a departure in subject matter for Neshat, who is widely known for films that focus on social and religious codes in Muslim societies, particularly as they relate to women. Despite the work’s undeniable beauty and intrigue, the subject matter—dreams, mysteries, aging—feels a bit flimsy compared to Neshat’s typical inspirations. She addresses this in a press release, stating: “Thematically, it is a big departure for me, as it moves away from all my past socio-political subjects regarding Iran and Islam and enters a very timeless and universal story.”
The film is also sponsored by Dior (for whom Portman is a spokesmodel) and at times feels in danger of veering into fashion film territory, with the artfully blurry shots and that breathless, delicate quality. And despite her relatively plain costuming and undisputed acting chops, Portman is such a famous face that her presence is a bit distracting from other, more subtle aspects of the film.
While it’s ultimately a rather forgettable piece, Neshat is by far the biggest name to be featured in the Biennale (in addition to being one of our 100 most powerful women in the art world) and her presence there will only lend credibility to the fledgling but highly worthwhile art show.
Shirin Neshat’s Illusions & Mirrors (2013) will be on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until February 1, 2015. A preview is available on YouTube.
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