One of the first shots of Asghar Farhadi’s The Past separates two of its characters between a pane of glass where they can see can see but not hear each other. This image crudely recalls his Oscar-winning drama A Separation (2011) which focuses on the conflict tearing its central couple apart: the husband wants to stay in Iran to look after his father, the wife wants to move abroad to provide improved conditions for her daughter. While A Separation was one of the most talked about films of 2011, due to a combination of its brilliance and its acceptance of the best foreign language Oscar, The Past’s arrival has generated less enthusiasm despite sharing similar levels of acclaim with its predecessor. This is perhaps a result of Farhadi’s decision to shoot the film in France away from his native Iran, the country which has functioned as the backdrop to all his previous films. What The Past lacks in relation to A Separation is the latter’s exploration of a society alien to the Western world, where the breakdown of a relationship is closely entwined with the politics of Iran. In The Past, a film which shares much of the emotional intensity of A Separation, the overt interest in politics of its predecessor is replaced with a subtler investigation of a society in which politics is referred to but never made explicit.
While A Separation focuses on the conflict which precedes the separation of its central couple, The Past opens with the reunion of Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) who have been separated for four years and have come together to finalise their divorce. As Farhadi resists offering the audience the exposition one would receive in a more conventional film, the reasons behind this union are revealed gradually: one has to wait for the pieces to fit together. The past is therefore difficult to access for both Farhadi’s characters and his audience. However, this is not to the detriment of the film, in fact working out the plot functions as one of the central pleasures of The Past. The film begins by revealing information slowly like a detective solving a case before actually moving its narrative into the territory of the mystery film its approach recalls.
Marie takes Ahmad to her house where he meets her young daughter Léa and the troubled Fouad, son of Marie’s latest lover Samir (Tahar Rahim) who she is carrying the child and about to marry. Marie’s equally troubled older daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) then enters the picture, expressing her dislike for Samir, harbouring a grudge one immediately interprets as emerging from her desire to protect her mother who has been unlucky with men in the past. As Marie has trouble relating to her children and Samir’s son, Ahmad ends up playing the surrogate father role, attempting to mend the relationships Marie struggles to tackle. Farhadi then reveals that Samir’s wife Céline has been in a coma for eight months due to an attempt at taking her life. This suicide was purportedly prompted by her realisation of the affair Marie and Samir were undergoing. This is where the ambiguities of the film start to emerge: it seems that Lucie blames herself for Céline’s suicide for reasons best left to the film to reveal while Farhadi inserts other characters into the film in order to obscure this explanation. The Past then progresses to offer various lines of interpretation, moving itself away from the classic mystery drama that characteristically end with a definite solution into the realm of the art film which thrive on ambiguity.
Like A Separation the success of the film is indebted to its explorations of character and the dysfunctionality of contemporary relationships, juxtaposing intense scenes of affectation with those of anger and internal anxiety. Working in the mystery format, Farhadi manages to reveal information realistically, in brief references and fleeting comments, never providing the answers to the questions the audience so fervently crave. To some audiences this may provoke aggravation, however, the work Farhadi asks of his audience is ultimately rewarding, presenting a slice of contemporary Parisian life which is open to many layers of interpretation. Those accustomed to the practices of the art film will, however, either foresee the ending or understand what it will eventually achieve. In terms of narrative this film is rarely adding anything new to the art film genre but then one must remember that art film is rarely about narrative. Instead the mystery narrative is set up to allow an exploration of the ambiguities within the relationships of the films characters, to foreground both dialogue and the exceptional performances of Bejo, who won Best Actress at Cannes for her Marie, and the other actors and actresses of The Past (including the children who are equally impressive). While I do not think that the film is as successful as A Separation, it is a worthy successor that cements Farhardi’s reputation as a considerable director of tight emotional dramas and actors. Recommended.