Review: The Past

The past is a foreign country, so they say, and quite literally so for Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi, who in looking to confirm his international breakthrough A Separation has made the bold step of shooting his new film in France and in French – a language he doesn’t master. The Past (Le Passé) is another example in the long lineage of European co-productions in this era of an increasingly globalised film industry. Historically, such co-productions arose as a means to pool together in the face of the juggernaut rival that is Hollywood, and now increasingly many films in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are regularly being funded by foreign producers.

All this to say that international cinema has more trans-national fluidity, and blurred national barriers, than ever before. (One just has to note the debate stirred by Le Passé, a Paris-set Franco-Italian production, being chosen for Iran’s entry to the Oscars.) And of course, Farhadi is not the first Iranian to make such a move, with Abbas Kiarostami making his last two features in Italy and Japan, and like in Kiarostami’s case there may well be some political motivation in Farhadi’s directing a film abroad, perhaps a quest for greater artistic freedom (for more on this see my series of essays on Iranian cinema).

However such a move also comes on the back of many doors opening up for him after the massive success of A Separation, and has the undoubted advantage of attracting European star actors. Just as Kiarostami before him cast Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy, Farhadi essentially had the pick of the crop for his central characters and, although Marion Cotillard had to pull out due to a schedule clash, he still  secured two of the rising stars of French cinema: Tahar Rahim (last seen on UK screens in Our Children) and Bérénice Bejo (Oscar-nominated for The Artist). Bejo picked up a Best Actress prize at Cannes for her convincing, naturalistic portrayal of a woman in the middle of a complicated domestic and romantic arrangement about to fall into crisis.

Her character, Marie, has called her estranged Iranian husband Ahmad (played by Ali Mosaffa, who learnt French for the part) to fly back to Paris from Iran, so they can finalise divorce proceedings. The two haven’t seen each other in 4 years, and Marie is now in a relationship with Samir (Rahim) whom she intends to marry once the divorce papers are signed. Samir is the proprietor of a dry-cleaning business and has a young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), who has a thorny relationship with his potential new mother-to-be Marie. Marie herself has two daughters from a prior relationship, both still fond of their calm, quietly-spoken step-father Ahmad, who claims they are the only reason he accepted to come. Things get more complicated when we learn that Samir is still technically married to a wife currently in a coma, and Marie’s rebellious teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) claims to know shocking details about her mother’s relationship with Samir but says she’ll only talk to Ahmad about it.

As in Farhadi’s previous work, the performances do full justice to complex characters, whose motives are in conflict and whose lives are about to be thrown into turmoil as a situation snowballs dramatically. The shadow of the past still loom large over all these people, who are all full of doubts about how to deal with time moving on. The children are each missing a presence now gone from their lives (his mother for Fouad, Ahmad for Lucie); Samir is torn between loyalty to his comatose wife, frozen in time, and moving ahead with Marie; and, as it happens, Marie and Ahmad aren’t quite over their marriage themselves. What is truly impressive about the way Farhadi has written this, is that every major plot point has in fact already happened in the past, and the events unfolding now merely depict its present reverberations.

In fact, everything in the film serves to remind us of the stranglehold of the past. Farhadi’s mise-en-scene gives a fully formed spatial awareness of Marie’s Parisian-suburb home, where Ahmad finding his old belongings digs up memories, but which Marie is constantly renovating and fixing up, thereby also preparing for some uncertain future. Samir’s job as a dry-cleaner is also a pertinent metaphor, since the stains of the past are affecting everyone here. Le Passé further enriches its already dense thematic layers by (among other things) looking at how technology now adds confusion to how we digest our past (an email history has a small but crucial part); and questions the act of apologising (a recurrent theme) as an oft-used but ultimately unsatisfactory way of dealing with past mistakes, for something always lingers and one is never sure how sincere the apology or its acceptance is.

Le Passé thus offers a fairly pessimistic (but for me believable) portrait of human relations, marred by miscommunication and scarred by memories of the past, be they of pain or of love. From this follows a seeming impossibility for a couple to ever found a basis on which to flourish. Even the sole couple who are still actually together in the film, a pair of old-time friends of Ahmad’s, don’t have it rosy either. The Iranian husband jovially quips to Ahmad of his Italian wife, that all they still have in common is the colour of their nation’s flags. In this treatment of human flaws, Farhadi is not differing too much from his preceding films, yet there is something which works less well here. The first two acts often display his mathematical precision in showing the chaotic dynamics ensuing between a multitude of human beings, each with conflicting motives and each with secrets of their own to hide. Sadly, this isn’t quite maintained in the final third.

Maybe it can be blamed on Farhadi working in a foreign country and language, but the last half hour or so does feel overly muddled, with one or two shifts between the (many) characters too many. The twists and turns in A Separation felt organic all the way through, and hence left us gripped, not to mention how well that film’s numerous themes were integrated into the story without taking anything away from the narrative’s flow. In contrast Le Passé feels less well orchestrated, more contrived and not entirely sure what it’s trying to say throughout the final scenes. That is up until the ending, which though powerful, feels out of sync with what we had been seeing for most the film.

So, whilst it doesn’t do anything better than his previous two or three films, it still feels unfair to call it a step backwards. Farhadi has, at the very least, displayed the ability to make a film in very different conditions and still draw fine performances from a large cast, notably from the child actors (young Fouad with his intelligent, intense stare steals several scenes). Besides, a sub-par Farhadi film is still more interesting than the best work of the large majority of other contemporary directors. If you enjoyed A Separation, I still heartily recommend you watch this, with the only addendum that if you’re yet to do so, you should look to the past and seek out Farhadi’s earlier films About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday, both still just superior to Le Passé.

Le Passé:

(France/Iran/Italy, 2013)

Dir: Asghar Farhadi