If Le Movie Snob had done a “Les Best Movies” list for 2011, A Separation would have held a spot very close to the top. The movie, by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, was the favorite to win the 2012 Best Foreign Film Oscar; its win gave me a brief advantage in the Oscar pool that year.
The Past is his follow-up to that masterpiece. It is the first movie Farhadi has shot outside his native Iran. It is set in Paris, and despite the majority of the cast being French, it is Iran’s official submission for Best Foreign Film for the 2014 Oscars. Iran did not submit a film last year, ostensibly as an act of protest, but I suspect the real reason may be that Farhadi didn’t release a movie in 2012.
The Past was a big buzzer at the Cannes festival earlier this year. Bérénice Bejo won the Best Actress award for her performance as Marie Brisson in this movie.
If I didn’t tell you this was the same actress who played Jean Dujardin’s objet d’affection in The Artist, Peppy Miller, a “No way!”-“Way!” debate would likely ensue. Sans tap shoes, with a voice, and often make-up free (or made-up to appear make-up free), Bejo reveals herself to be a fierce, uncommonly talented actress.
Bejo has her Gallic colleague Marion Cotillard to thank. Cotillard was Farhadi’s first choice, not least because of the physical resemblance she shares with actress Pauline Burlet, who plays Marie’s elder daughter Lucie. Burlet played Cotillard’s daughter in La Vie En Rose (2007). Farhadi wanted to re-capitalize on their uncanny resemblance to each other which remains after six years.
Just as it’s impossible to imagine Michelle Pfieffer as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, (Jodie Foster won the Oscar as second choice), The Past would be a different movie had Cotillard played Marie. Peu importe ….
I did find The Past wanting compared to A Separation. Perhaps shooting in a foreign location (for Farhadi) and having to work through a translator, though he claims that was not an issue, could explain why.
Perhaps not, as Farhadi said he began working on the script for The Past before The Separation was even released and the consequent accolades started rolling in.
I’m inclined to believe the former, as there are several ingenious scenes in which glass renders silent conversations we can only see, as if we were suddenly rendered deaf. From the opening scene at the airport where Marie is trying to communicate with Ahmad through a glass partition, to several scenes in cars, where the audience stays with the camera in the calm interior and watches the gesticulations and facial contortions occurring outside. He claims to have done the same in A Separation; I think that I didn’t notice those scenes in that movie speaks to their greater impact in The Past.
It is an excellent movie, and one that will have earned its award season campaign. Farhadi is a master director, not unlike his Middle Eastern peer, Abdellatif Kechiche, whose movie Blue Is The Warmest Color was also awarded a prize at Cannes, the Palme D’Or. Both directors are intense in their directorial process:
Once the screenplay of The Past was finished, the entire process took five full months. ‘I asked the actors to do a couple of months of rehearsals before the shoot. We’d always start with jogging and warm-up exercises. Then we’d work on scenes from the past of these characters that are not in the script.
While Kechiche is under scrutiny, his intense method is but one aspect of his negative publicity. Farhadi’s less controversial subject matter seems to have spared him the soucis of his colleague.
Some moviegoers may find The Past challenging as it spends most of the story in the present moment and only hints at what exactly happened in the past that is having a clear and significant impact now.
Iranian actor Ali Mossafa plays Ahmad, the soon to be ex-husband of Marie. He has come to Paris from Tehran to finalize their divorce per her request. They have not seen each other for four years.
I read a review that explained their separation and her request for a divorce because Ahmad had abandoned Marie (WARNING– link has spoilers). Nuh,uh. I don’t believe he abandoned her.
I thought he had left for reasons beyond his control, most likely political. In their first conversation, Ahmad mentions his previous attempts to come to Paris, trips that were thwarted at the last minute for reasons he doesn’t explain. Marie reveals having waited at the airport on more than one occasion in vain. Also, both discover he has not received a very important email she sent; if he’s in Iran, and likely under surveillance, his emails could be censored, non? Ours are, after all.
Despite what I would like to believe is a very convincing explanation, I’m realizing as I’m writing this that I’m filling in details the director intentionally left out, details of the characters’ past.
While I think the case I make is stronger than the reviewer I link to, both of us are succumbing to a very natural and often unconscious need to fill in the blanks. This desire for answers is so strong, we automatically make assumptions so we don’t have to live in that anxious, discomfiting space of not having all the answers.
It will be hard to resist the urge to make up your own story of what exactly happened in the past among these characters that is affecting them in the present. But now that I’ve made you aware of this natural impulse, you can do your best to resist the urge as you watch the movie. You may observe more than I, as you will, hopefully, be consciously watching the movie without prejudice.
Don’t worry, this is a different situation than I described in You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet where the opaqueness of the dialogue is too blunt to penetrate. There are enough details to reveal some of the past that is affecting the present. The past in The Past is seen through a pinhole, not unlike real life.
The email that Ahmad missed explained why Marie wanted him to come to Paris so they could get divorced; it’s because she is engaged to another man, Samir (Tahar Rahim who starred in The Prophet).
Was Ahmad hoping for a reconciliation? I filled in that blank with a yes. He is clearly shaken when he learns he’s been replaced but accepts this news with heavy-handed grace. Also, when Ahmad arrives at Marie’s home, he slowly takes in all the details, observing with bittersweet nostalgia all that has changed since he lived there.
Marie is living in a lower class suburb of Paris, alongside the RER (Réseau Express Régional- Regional Express Network, the train that goes further from Paris than the Métro)- indicating that they are in the less desirable, often unsafe suburbs. She’s living with Samir, his under 10 year-old son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), and her two daughters, Lucie and the younger Léa (Jeanne Jestin) the latter only slightly older than Fouad. Léa’s old enough to remember Ahmad. She hugs him as if he was her father, but he’s not. We learn neither daughter is Ahmad’s.
Lucie is going through what appear to be typical adolescent conflicts with her mother, complicated by the familial readjustment, that we learn is not the first she’s had to endure. She trusts and confides in Ahmad. What makes her trust him? He’s very protective and understanding towards her. How did they develop this relationship? The answer lay somewhere in the past.
Ahmad’s zen-like calmness and respect for the people who are preventing him from returning to the life he wanted back stop short of straining credulity. He’s from Iran, a country and culture not known for its respect for women. But he’s fluent in French, so he must have spent a significant period of time there and perhaps adopted a more Western view of society that he maintained even when he returned to his homeland.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot. It’s a compelling story, and I don’t want to put my spin on the details any more than I already have.
SLIFF Screening: Friday, November 22nd, 8:15 pm. Landmark Plaza Frontenac.