Eroticism Isn’t a Distraction in Maryam Keshavarz’s “Circumstance”—It’s Vital

In Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss.

“If you could be anywhere in the world, where would you be?”

These whispered words open Maryam Keshavarz’s 2011 film Circumstance, a story that’s indeed all about escape, fantasy, place. Set in Tehran, it tells the loves story of teenage girls Atafeh (The Bold Type’s Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) as they move between familial expectations, cultural restraints, and the lives they imagine for themselves. They are confined by their circumstances but not wholly destroyed by them.

My favorite thing about Circumstance is Keshavarz’s deeply erotic and gorgeous visual approach to the storytelling. The plot brims with darkness and drama. Atafeh’s brother Mehran, the prodigal son, returns home from rehab at the start of the movie and develops a disturbing obsession with Shireen that takes a violently voyeuristic turn. He’s also recently delved into Islamic fundamentalism in his sobriety, driving a wedge between him and Atafeh. But this is no drab melodramatic story about lesbian suffering. It manages to be realistic about the oppression Atafeh and Shireen face—not only as lesbians but as women—while still celebratory of their youth, beauty, passion, and rebellious teenage fun. Keshavarz’s use of light and color is stunning.

Part of what’s fun about this Lost Movie Reviews project for me is looking back at reviews that came out about these movies, especially the reviews written by straight white men who, frankly, never seem to Get It. Roger Ebert wrote in his review in 2011 that the movie “strays into unlikely melodrama and distracting eroticism,” ending with an even more direct take on the film’s style and tone: “I wish Keshavarz had chosen a more low-key, everyday approach to two ordinary teenagers, and gone slowly on the lush eroticism and cinematic voyeurism.”

Yes, the film is lushly stylized. There are several slow-motion sequences. It’s bright and artful and sparkly. But those aren’t distractions. In fact, they’re welcome embellishments that capture the freedom and exuberance Atafeh and Shireen feel when they’re able to access and act on their queerness. To suck the sensuality out of this film seems absurd. Taking the sex out of the movie would leave only the sexual violence.

A “low-key, everyday” approach?! As if lesbian romances can’t be dreamy and grand and well lit and scored by a soundtrack of bangers. As if lesbian coming-of-age stories need to be stoic in order to be taken seriously. I for one am very pleased that Keshavarz’s approach brims with extremes. Intense darkness and intense pleasure.

Circumstance moves between literal underground spaces in Iran but also shines a light on its characters’ underground feelings—the things we keep locked inside ourselves and only unleash in our freest moments. Atafeh’s parents straddle worlds, too. And Mehran’s watchful eye throughout the film becomes increasingly threatening. The film is very much steeped in voyeurism. Mehran’s gaze is oppressive. Keshavarz uses filming styles that reiterate the fact that Atafeh and Shireen are under constant surveillance—by Mehran but by society at large, too. Mehran’s surveillance is an extension of the state’s.

The movie is intermittently gorgeous and disturbing, and those contrasts are effective. It feels, at times, like a romance, and at others like a psychological thriller. The movie’s most sensual scenes are, in some ways, its most vital. Again, so far from distractions. They’re a manifestation of Atafeh and Shireen’s deep love for and attraction to one another. Here, Atafeh and Shireen can touch and kiss and be their truest selves together. And why should that look and feel anything less than magical? Atafeh and Shireen don’t have sexual agency in many of their circumstances, but Keshavarz gives them sexual agency in these intimate and visually immersive scenes. I think Drew gets the essence of this film exactly right when she writes in her list of The 200 Best Lesbian, Queer & Bisexual Movies Of All Time: “One moment this film is devastatingly sexy, the next it’s just devastating.” The escapism and fantasy don’t distract from the repression and violence. It’s the coexistence of these parts of Atafeh and Shireen’s lives that makes this movie so compelling.

Circumstance is occasionally overly simplistic in its exploration of class, gender, religion, and politics. It’s most effective when it looks at the subtle ways patriarchy seeps into a household. But in its unspooling of its complicated love story, it’s magnetic and emotionally urgent. It’s far from a feel-good romance, but it isn’t wholly tragic either, letting glimmers of light and joy into its story about state violence against women. The movie, like its characters, exists between spaces.

“If you could be anywhere in the world, where would you be?”

Neither Atafeh nor Shireen end up exactly where they want to be, because Circumstance isn’t ultimately swallowed up by the fantasies it imagines and carves out space for. Not all circumstances can be easily overcome. Escapism is often necessary for survival. The ending is a little muddled in its execution, but it’s overall a surprising and layered film.

You can watch Circumstance for $3.99 on Amazon.

Want more movies? Check out Autostraddle’s 200 Best Lesbian Movies of All Time.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 760 articles for us.


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