Divorce is rarely a scenario in which anyone wins, least of all the children, as A Separation director Asghar Faradi reminds us once again in his latest feature, The Past, which has been widely touted as one of the Cannes Film Festival’s hottest tickets and a sure-fire Palme d’Or frontrunner. While failing to quite live up to the heart-wrenching moral dilemmas of the director’s previous film, The Past offers up plenty of provocative notions about the state of the contemporary family unit, wrapped around a thoroughly engrossing central mystery.
The story begins as Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is summoned to France by his estranged wife of four years, Marie (Berenice Bejo), to finalize their long-gestating divorce. However, Ahmad soon enough uncovers quite the familial powder keg once he realizes that Marie’s current partner, Samir (Tahir Rahim), has near-enough set up shop with her despite the fact that he has a wife in an eight-month-long coma following a suicide attempt. It is the character of Samir’s wife who, though seen on screen for roughly just a minute in total, forms the crux of the film’s dramatic tension.
Though initially the passive-aggressive quibbling between the unconventional family configuration, which sees Ahmad staying at Marie’s home with her and Samir’s combined three children, as well as the new beau himself, might suggest a toothed examination of middle-class mores is on the cards, Farhadi has something else very different lined up. This is another reliably well-mounted close-up look at a family in crisis, irreparably splintered off and now preoccupied with their respective pasts — a divorce and a coma — despite the effort previously made to move past them.
Through and through, it all comes back to Samir’s wife and the impact her situation has on damn-near every character in the film, be it indirectly or not. The various questions surrounding her episode form much of The Past‘s intrigue, and suitably, Farhadi unfurls the answers like a finely-preened suspense thriller. Key to it all is perhaps the film’s most fascinating character, Marie’s 16-year-old daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who has become increasingly withdrawn from the family dynamic, and as we learn later, with good reason.
To say anymore would be to ruin the winding quality of Farhadi’s deliberate drama, which revels in dark secrets though rarely deigns to credulity-stretching melodrama. What can be said is that each, new, startling beat is propelled forward by the bang-up performances across the board. While Mosaffa gets the seemingly lighter load as our guide through this labyrinth of familial disarray, he delivers a potent everyman and arguably the only truly relatable character throughout the film. Bejo, meanwhile, sizzles in a role miles away from her plucky turn in The Artist, this time a rather unsavory, ill-tempered sort who earns much of our ire and little of our sympathy (though, quite fairly, there are no monochrome villains here). The main gripe here is that Bejo’s turn does occasionally saunter into off-putting histrionics.
It would meanwhile be remiss not to applaud the fine work of the young Burlet, who without which the film’s narrative drive might not have operated quite so effectively. The one actor likely to be passed over for praise above all others, however, is Rahim; though resigned to the anguished periphery for much of the film, his understated performance paints a character trapped painfully in limbo between one love and another. If the film hinges largely on one decision he is faced with making, the actor conveys that dilemma with startling yet subtle aplomb.
On the other hand, the formal style of the picture is a tad off-putting at times, in that the evidently strong lensing from Mahmoud Kalari feels like it could have been put to more robust use with additional location shooting (though this may not have been conducive to the home-spun family narrative). Also, some audiences are liable to feel a tad uneasy with the script’s constant references to Samir’s wife committing suicide, while peculiarly glossing over the fact that, in spite of her state, she is still very much alive (though this could be an error down to poor subtitling).
Any director would have struggled to follow-up such a dramatically rich work as A Separation, though Farhadi ably acquits himself with a somewhat overlong but largely absorbing depiction of family turmoil. The desire to see Farhadi shoot for another theme and up his scope, however, is undeniable.
The Upside: Farhadi tells a worthy story that children of divorce will instantly identify with; performances are universally strong, lending added gravitas to a narrative already front-loaded with it
The Downside: Berenice Bejo occasionally resorts to overplaying her hand in the explosive argument scenes; the glacial pace dictates that the film could easily have been trimmed by half an hour without losing a morsel of good content
On the Side: Marion Cotillard was originally cast in Berenice Bejo’s role but had to drop out before production began.