Film review of the French/Iranian divorce drama The Past starring Berenice Bejo.
Director: Asghar Farhadi. Memento/France 3/Sony et al.
Producer: Alexandre Mallet-Guy
Writer: Asghar Farhadi.
Camera: Mahmoud Kalari.
Music: Evgueni Galperine.
Sets: Claude Lenoir.
Berenice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani, Babak Karimi, Aleksandra Klebanska.
Arriving in Paris four years after leaving his wife, Ahmad (Mosaffa) is in town at Marie-Anne’s (Bejo) behest to finalise their divorce. She wishes to formally break with Ahmad to pursue her new relationship with Samir (Rahim). Samir’s wife Celine (Klebanska) is in a coma and Mare-Anne’s eldest daughter Lucie (Burlet), from a relationship with another man, disapproves of this new union. The secrets and lies of this complicated family are explored.
Writer-director Farhadi has a specialist cinematic interest in quietly moving, but earth-shattering human dramas.
His first major hit, A Separation (2011) dealt with the personal, social and political fall-out that follows an Iranian couple who are going through a divorce, employing a close, interrogative style throughout. The film was a big hit with international audiences and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
This, his follow-up, hasn’t quite achieved the same sort of peer/critical praise or box-office business, despite having a relatively big and talented star in Bejo (The Artist, 2011) in the lead role, but he continues his microscopic examination of family conflict and resolution with the same degree of artistic success.
For a film that deals with the things that are left unsaid, unresolved or ignored, Farhadi sets the tone perfectly during the opening scene at the airport. Marie-Anne signals where she is to Ahmad and he approaches. They talk but their words are not heard as the plexiglass between them mutes their conversation. They appear to understand each other, but it is a clearly awkward reunion and they soon argue when they drive to pick up her daughter from school.
It is a moment that underlines the emotional earthquakes, as Farhadi has mentioned in interviews, that can emanate from seemingly innocuous daily events, sending shockwaves that rumble in the background waiting to let-rip at any point, creating painful fissures in his characters that can unstable them for long periods.
Lucie, having forwarded her mother’s intimate emails to Samir’s wife, did the smallest of things but the repercussions have had devastating, life-altering consequences she could not have foreseen, including her own near breakdown at what she has done. Whether this maliciousness or the folly of immaturity, she none the less pays a heavy price for it.
Samir and Marie-Anne are walking in the streets of Paris one day and he carelessly steps onto the road without looking and is nearly run over, Marie-Anne only just pulling him back in time. This is the tiniest of things, but is their relationship already doomed to be a car crash involvement?
Fouad (Aguis) spills paint on the floor and Marie-Anne locks him in a room, as she may wish to shut Ahmad out of her life. Whatever the interpretation of these events, it is by focusing on the minutae of daily domestic life that Farhadi draws us into a compelling and intensely cinematic style of film-making.
He uses the same silent conversational approach later, when Ahmad bids goodbye to Naima (Ouazani), Samir’s colleague, after questioning her about the day Samir’s wife committed suicide at the dry cleaners where they work. She seems to give an honest account, but has clearly omitted something from her recollection that she thus carries with her.
Celine, in her comatose state, is not only not heard but is unseen until the very last moment, the fulcrum for the drama is silent and unresponsive to the disaster she has helped cause, her position on matters given only by the views of others. I challenge viewers to not turn their eyes from the final scene as the end credits roll!
Even though past events haunt and taunt the protagonists, there is a chance to let go, restart and move on. Ahmad’s return is a point of interest: he hasn’t explained why he walked out on Marie-Anne all those years ago. He broaches the subject with here but she doesn’t want to hear as it is ‘in the past’. He none the less seems to atone for his previous sins by acting as an unofficial family therapist, ridding their closet of the skeletons that would otherwise continue to tease them and securing a possible, better relationship for Marie-Anne and Lucie and also Samir with not only his difficult son but also the neglected, suicidal wife who will more than likely never wake up. Despite the pain caused by his return, he is the catalyst for new beginnings.
The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Bejo who is at power-house best and deservedly won the Best Actress prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. But its Burlet who is more impressive, essaying a quietly perfect performance as a troubled teen who torments her mother in order to secure her love and validation. It’s a knockout turn in a film littered with them.