Interview: Desiree Akhaven, ‘Appropriate Behaviour’

“I love Curb Your Enthusiasm. I want to feel just as entitled as any rich, middle aged white man; that’s how entitled I want my protagonist to be.” Desiree Akhaven does not consider herself to be a political filmmaker. In her debut feature Appropriate Behaviour (2014), which she wrote and directed, she stars as Shirin, a bisexual Iranian-American, going through a break-up with her long- term girlfriend, Maxine. The film premiered at Sundance in 2014, followed by a successful festival run and a critical reception that signals a cult film in the making. Shirin is a typical hip twenty-something, roaming the gaping chasm between adolescence and maturity in Brooklyn’s creative bubble, equally insecure, self-assured, self-absorbed, and dealing with heartbreak.

As such, her film is funny, heartfelt, and very, very, aware. Akhaven says she struggled to write a synopsis when it showed at Sundance, because she found it hard to categorise, despite it falling into so many boxes. It’s been described as an LGBT Girls, and even ‘ethnic’ comedy. She’s happy for it to be open to interpretation, “I try not to think about labels because they don’t mean anything to me – they’re so subjective. I’m glad to hear someone call it an ethnic comedy. If someone called it a gay drama, I’d be like, ‘okay, that’s someone’s opinion of what a gay drama is’, that’s great too”. She acknowledges that her film is political in its very nature, because society politicises and labels the marginal. “I am a queer woman of colour. So if I am making personal work, and if I come from marginalised communities, that is political.” Marginal is also a label Akhaven actively wishes to defy.

“Shirin is just as entitled as any white kid. It’s the whole point of the film, and the only reason we made her that bratty. I wanted to ask: what is your reaction to someone who normally in films we only see as victims, or villains, or jokes. And now they’re the protagonist, and they’re just as entitled as you, and kind of rude, in a Larry David kind of way. How do you feel about that? It’s a statement. A lot of American critics were like, ‘this girl is so bratty and snobby’, and I was like, ‘oh god, don’t you get the point?!'” She laughs. Appropriate Behaviour began life as a script inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973), intended as a micro-budget film featuring 12 scenes from 12 months in the life of a couple heading towards break up.

 Then her 2011 web series The Slope (tagline: Superficial, homophobic lesbians) began receiving critical attention. Her London-based friend and film Producer Cecilia Frugiuele came on board, and Appropriate Behaviour was born. Akhaven says she is “very blessed” to have met Frugiuele, with whom she shares an “intellectual romance” that began when she spent a year in London studying film in 2005. “Before I moved [to London], I always felt like I was trying to seduce people into my friendship. I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. I lived an hour and a half away from my high school, and I was weird looking, and super isolated. Then I moved here and I met Cecilia it was like a turning point in my life, it really changed things for me. It was the first time I felt cool. Before then I would meet someone I thought was cool and I would make it my job to seduce them into liking me.”

Frugiuele also has a ‘story by’ credit and really helped shape the script. “We acted out the script on her couch every day for a month. This is so much her script. I think the film would be very masturbatory and boring if it wasn’t so much Cecilia’s perspective too.” Akhaven is very open about the film being based on her own experiences, with Shirin a much-exaggerated version of herself. The opening scene shows the fallout of Shirin’s relationship with Maxine, played with cool reserve by Rebecca Henderson. It’s a classic break up; emotional tantrums, pettiness and hastily packed bags. It is followed, however, with Shirin storming off down the street brandishing a large strap-on dildo. The film is full of these delicate juxtapositions – a norm immediately subverted.

The structure is similar to that of Woody Allen’s romantic comedy, Annie Hall (1977). It is a flourish of memory sequences, interspersed with present day narrative. “Annie Hall was a huge influence to me. Before there was this myth of romance that had been fed to me through films for so many years. Annie Hall destroyed that for me, and I wanted to not just pay homage, but steal from that!” Like Allen’s film, the memories are more than just a narrative tool. There is a scene in which Shirin is having awkward sex with a guy she meets on OK Cupid, that then cuts to a memory sequence of her having sex with Maxine. The memory stands out as more emotional and subjective. “By strategically placing memory sequences, we could reveal to the audience, not only that Shirin was stuck in the memories, but also to show that she and Maxine really, really loved each other, and that they had so much fun together”. Akhaven agrees that narrative comedy is largely occupied by a masculine voice in which “women are often just vehicles for men to have funny sex stories.” Despite Shirin’s societal ‘marginality’ she is the protagonist, privileged, and funny, and so, can her film be read as an appropriation of male-centric comedy narratives? “It’s so intelligent to me when you can do something that is funny on the surface level, but beneath the surface it is cutting. I think that cutting humour is where I want to live. And the work that I love the most”.

Appropriate Behaviour is out now on DVD courtesy Peccadillo Pictures. You can read our review of the film here.

Carol-Mei Barker