Following the popularity of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011), the director’s previous film About Elly (2009) has just received its UK cinema release. About Elly won a Silver Bear at the Berlinale, but with A Separation Farhadi went one better, taking the festival’s highest honour, the Golden Bear. A Separation is perfectly judged, maintaining its tension and intrigue evenly throughout. There are moments in About Elly when the film loses momentum a bit, making it appropriate to rank the film behind A Separation. The comparison is relative, though, as both films are masterful and gripping: among contemporary international filmmakers, Farhadi is truly outstanding.
Both A Separation and About Elly are premised on intrigue and suspense. In A Separation, a middle class family is threatened by an accusation from one of their servants, a woman from a poor, devout family. The film irresistibly draws the audience in by gradually revealing a truth that is complicated: each character presents their version of the events, but at the same time, each has something to hide. An enormous sense of threat is associated with revealing the truth.
About Elly centres even more on the middle classes: a group of old university friends are going on a summer holiday together. One of them, Sepideh, invites along Elly, her daughter’s schoolteacher. She hopes to pair Elly off with the divorced Ahmad, who has just come back from Germany. In spite of resolving not to embarrass Elly, the friends are excited and can’t resist teasing Ahmad and giggling behind Elly’s back. When Elly disappears, the group initially panics, believing that something has happened to her. But it occurs to them that she may have just gone home on her own, and the group begins to analyse their own behaviour, as well as what they know of Elly, to figure out why she would have left so suddenly. Gradually, attention turns to Sepideh, who is behaving strangely: does she know something, and if so, why is she hiding it?
Where A Separation throws the audience straight in, with tension and stakes already high, About Elly begins on a much lighter note, making it fascinating to follow Farhadi’s alterations in tone as the film progresses. The opening is reminiscent of Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies (2010): a playful group of friends turns out to be childish and overbearing, and their holiday arrangements entirely banal. There is a small hiccup in the group’s plans in About Elly, as they are forced to change their accommodation. Finding themselves in a spacious but rundown beach house, the friends start to circulate endlessly in and out, the camera dizzily following each person as they try to accomplish their own little project: cleaning up broken glass, getting the boiler working, going to buy food. They are constantly calling each other’s names and making endless requests.
The seeds of trouble have been sown, though, starting with the change in accommodation. Sepideh is forced to admit that she knew in advance that the villa they had planned to stay in was unavailable: she suppressed the truth because she was afraid the whole trip would be cancelled. A precedent of secrecy has been set. The new setting foreshadows disaster in an almost Hitchcockian manner. The beach house is surrounded by a tall iron fence, which the landlady advises them to lock at night: “it’s not safe here,” she says, without elaborating. The house itself doesn’t provide much protection: several windows are broken, and even the bathroom door doesn’t lock. And then, practically on their doorstep, is the choppy sea, an irresistible draw to the children and source of stress to their parents. Yet the tone is not yet entirely bleak, as they all joyfully pitch in to make the house habitable. Soon, Elly and Ahmad are flirting, the men dancing, women laughing, the kettle’s on the hob and kebabs on the grill.
When disaster strikes, games and laughter are replaced by anger and tears. But the change in tone also permeates to the smallest details: Sepideh’s headscarf switches from vibrant red to dull green. The characters, who had been irritating in their playful mode, are now sympathetic as they are suddenly subdued, moving through the successive stages of panic, concern, analysis, accusation and evasiveness. As in A Separation, the skill of the actors is key in making this group of individuals well-differentiated and thoroughly believable at every moment. A film not to be missed.
1. All images courtesy of Axiom Films.