BFI #LFF 2022: SUBTRACTION Film Review

Taraneh Alidoosti in Subtraction (2022)

Taraneh Alidoosti in SUBTRACTION (2022)

Driven by strong cast performance and impressive cinematography, Mani Haghighi’s twisty human drama SUBTRACTION keeps you guessing until the final frame.

4 out of 5 stars

In his latest feature film, Iranian filmmaker Mani Haghighi delivers a tense Hitchcockian thriller about a married couple who meet their doppelgangers in Tehran.

While out on a lesson, young driving instructor Farzaneh (Taraneh Alidoosti) spots her husband, Jalal, walking into a woman’s apartment. Suspecting him of cheating, she confronts him, but Jalal (Navid Mohammadzadeh) swears he was out of town for work.

Jalal decides to check out the building for himself, where he meets a woman, Bita, who is the spitting image of Farzaneh, and whose husband, Mohsen, also looks identical to Jalal. As the couples’ lives intertwine, they each yearn for the prospect of escaping their marriage, but as the old idiom warns, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Taraneh Alidoosti and Navid Mohammadzadeh in Subtraction

Taraneh Alidoosti and Navid Mohammadzadeh in SUBTRACTION (2022)

Much like his previous work, Haghighi’s genius lies in telling stories that inhabit the grey areas of life. In this spellbinding psychological thriller, Haghighi kicks the audience into a rabbit hole of coincidences and improbabilities that leaves you questioning what you have watched.

Stylistically, there is a lot to like here. Adopting an inky-black aesthetic, Haghighi leans on visuals to build tension, the constant downpour of rain adding to the mystery and acting as an additional obstacle for the characters to overcome. Even the haunting set interiors are wet, the impending thunderstorms bringing leaks from walls and roofs.

There is a good use of space, with tight mid-shots in cars to show characters getting closer and wider angles in a hospital to show the distance between others. Morteza Najafi’s cinematography is stunning, while Meysam Molaei’s editing keeps the story flowing quickly and succinctly.

The score additionally ratchets up the tension in Subtraction. Ramin Kousha’s music is ominous and atmospheric, with percussion simmering in the background and a sound design by Amir Hossein Ghasemi that keeps us on the edge of our seats.

Taraneh Alidoosti and Navid Mohammadzadeh in Subtraction (2022)

Taraneh Alidoosti and Navid Mohammadzadeh in SUBTRACTION (2022)

But what makes SUBTRACTION so chillingly effective is the strength of the performances by Taraneh Alidoosti and Navid Mohammadzadeh, who play both couples with remarkable agility. While Jalal and Mohsen look identical to Farzaneh and Mohsen, we always know who is on the screen, which goes beyond subtle costume and makeup cues.

Alidoosti brings impressive physicality to the role, playing Farzaneh as downtrodden and slouchy and Bita as bright and straight-backed. Similarly, Mohammadzadeh portrays Jalal as bright-eyed, trustworthy, and likeable, unlike his doppelgänger Mohsen, whose behaviour is as unappealing as his sneering expression.

Of course, the plot isn’t always plausible, making SUBTRACTION more of a thriller that fits into the sci-fi genre than one that is grounded in reality. Yet, there’s much to love about this twisty human drama, and its series of twists are sure to catch you by surprise and keep you guessing until the final frame.

SUBTRACTION screens at the BFI London Film Festival 2022 on 15 October 2022.