The emotional secrets of two families are revealed when an Iranian returns to Paris to finalise his divorce from his French wife.
Look Back In Anger by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Asghar Farhardi has made another film for grown-ups, with a similar kind of moral enquiry to his A Separation, which won the Foreign Language Oscar in 2012. The layers of misunderstanding and missed communication that create personal relationships are peeled away one by one in a complex and involving movie full of emotional suspense, in which Farhardi examines how the past influences the present and whether its influence ever really goes away. Shot in Paris, it’s the Iranian director’s first foreign-language film, in a language he does not himself speak.
Iranian actor Ali Mosaffa learnt French to play the role of Ahmad. Ahmad’s marriage is over and he now lives in Iran, but apparently against his better judgement, he returns to Paris at the behest of his beautiful, volatile French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo, The Artist) to sign their divorce papers in person, after four years of separation. The same result could have been achieved by post, so he suspects there must be another reason that she has summoned him. She insists that he stay with her while he’s in Paris and as a result, flung unwittingly into a chaotic household, he finds himself forced into the role of being both its calm centre and mediator in a complicated domestic situation and also almost a deus ex machina, forced to try and resolve these family problems which the participants cannot resolve for themselves.
Visually, the film reflects thoughout the themes of separation, failed communication and looking back at the past. Marie meets Ahmad at the airport but when they try to communicate in the arrivals lounge, they are separated by a glass wall and can’t hear each other speak. When she picks him up and drives off, she reverses into something and they both gaze backwards at the camera through her car’s rear window as the film’s title comes up. In another scene, there’s almost a rewind – Marie leaves Samir’s flat not having told him the important piece of information she went to tell him, and when she hears a baby cry in a neighbouring flat, she thinks again and she goes back to do so after all. This motif of retracing steps for a different result is repeated throughout. The way the film is lit and the shots are framed gives the Parisian suburbs an Iranian feel.
Marie’s house in the suburbs, where Ahmad lived with her when they were married, is rambling, a bit down at heel and – a metaphor for the prevailing turbulent emotions – in a chaos of redecoration and repair that seems to get no further as the film progresses. Symbolically, when a pot of paint is kicked over by an unhappy child, it is Ahmad who clears up the mess. Though he seems to be some kind of intellectual, he’s also practical enough to do household chores that need doing, including unblocking the sink – preempting Marie’s new live-in boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim from A Prophet), with whom he finds himself in barely suppressed rivalry. It’s a new relationship she had not told him about: Samir is an Arab and – tellingly – an Ahmad lookalike, but he’s a younger, downmarket version who owns a dry cleaning shop.
Ahmad has been invited into a seething mass of problems he knew nothing of and perhaps Marie was consciously or subconsciously looking to him to sort them out. We see how holistically these problems affect family life, the fallout that broken relationships have on children. Marie’s adolescent daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) by a previous relationship with a Belgian is unhappy and resentful of her latest one, and welcomes Ahmad as a missing father figure. Samir’s young son Fouad is unhappy and troublesome living in Marie’s house and misses his mother. Marie’s relationship with Samir seems to have an unstable foundation, which we find out more about as the film progresses – perhaps she knows this and this is why she wanted Ahmad to come.
As Ahmad asks questions and goes deeper in his instinctive attempts to sort out the emotional mess around him, whilst questioning why indeed he should, he uncovers a trail of blame being passed from person to person. His only respite from it is visiting an old friend who owns an Iranian restaurant, who advises him both philosophically and pragmatically. Though Ahmad shows kindness in the situation he has been thrown into – perhaps his natural reaction, perhaps out of guilt – and treats everyone well, for example cooking an Iranian meal to bring the two families together, and in resolving petty disputes, it’s never explained why he left originally, though depression is hinted at.
It emerges in stages that Samir is living with Marie because his wife is in a coma, and has been for months. She is in a coma because she made an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide. She tried to commit suicide because she discovered Samir was having an affair with Marie. She may have found out about it because someone emailed her Samir and Marie’s love letters. But who did it, why did they do it and how did they know her email address? Did she actually read the email? Was it Samir himself, was it Marie, was it Lucie, was it Samir’s illegal immigrant shop assistant? Each time blame or guilt is passed from person to person, a little more information is unwrapped. Layers are peeled away one by one and we get nearer to the truth – or what we think is the truth. No longer useful, Ahmad is dismissed from Marie’s life and his past – his stored belongings cleared out – and returns to Iran, despite all he has done to heal the two families.
The final scene is a stunningly simple – a very long, silent take in a private room in a hospital as Samir holds his wife’s hand. The tension keeps the audience silent, unable to take its eyes from the screen and holding its breath, not knowing how the scene will turn out, looking for a sign that will bring a resolution to the narrative in a conventional way. Perhaps there was a sign, perhaps not. Perhaps there was but it was barely perceptible and we missed it. Or perhaps we just see what we want to see. In the end, in a film as in real life there may be no neat resolution and everyone’s lives just go on, with all their complications. A slow-burning, thought-provoking ending to an absorbing film.
The Past is released on 28th March 2014 in the UK