Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s The Past follows his multi award-winning drama A Separation with a rigorous examination of truth, history and human relationships.
The airport “arrivals” hall, the scene of so many cinematic reunions, is where Asghar Farhadi’s The Past begins. However, the hugs and tears that usually accompany such encounters aren’t anywhere to be found. Instead, a quietly telling scene plays out as Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives in Paris from Tehran, after a four-year absence, as we later discover. He is met by his estranged wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo), and they first glimpse each other through a glass partition. This subtle opening sets the mood for the entire film.
With both mouthing their words, unable to hear what the other is saying, what initially springs to mind is The Artist, the film that propelled French actress Bejo to international acclaim as the wide-eyed silent starlet. However, this is no breezy black-and-white comedy. In just a few short frames, Farhadi offers us a visual clue of what is to come: characters divided from each other, unable to communicate, as if they are imprisoned in cells of their own making.
It’s familiar territory for the Iranian director, who has touched upon themes of marriage and family in much of his preceding work. The most famous is A Separation (2011), the Oscar-winning film that brought Farhadi to international attention, with its painstaking depiction of an Iranian middle-class couple heading for divorce. Before that Fireworks Wednesday (2006) was an intimate portrait of three marriages, while About Elly (2009) also dealt with a trio of couples, all former classmates, who spend a short vacation together. Farhadi comments: “I don’t think there is any more universal experience than the family. For me, therefore, that is a bond between my spectators and myself. I don’t need to explain the context in which the story is unfolding. The relationship between a couple is perhaps the oldest relationship in the history of humanity. There’s so much suffering and pain linked to a couple, yet the agonies are always different – unique. I could spend my life talking about this theme without ever covering it entirely.”
In the case of The Past, divorce is once again at the heart of the story. At Marie’s request, Ahmad has arrived to finally sign some court papers, making the dissolution of their marriage official. As their union didn’t produce any children, on the surface, it’s an open-and-shut matter – a simple case of signing on the dotted line. The two are still on friendly speaking terms, after all, and Ahmad is keen to see Marie’s two children (from a previous marriage), surly teenager Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and the younger Léa (Jeanne Jestin).
When Ahmad arrives, he’s surprised to find that Marie has not booked him a hotel as he requested in his email. Rather, she plans to put him up in her house, which he soon discovers, is now also home to her new boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis). With Lucie refusing to accept her mother’s impending marriage to Samir, believing he’s just another in a long line of lovers, Ahmad walks into a pressure-cooker situation as simmering resentments threaten to boil over.
A remarkable early scene sets the tone in which Fouad, also struggling to deal with the difficulties of this new domestic arrangement, accidentally spills some paint. The incident sends Marie into spasms of anger, and she locks him in his room – only to witness an outburst of bile from the boy as he continues to kick the closed door repeatedly. While Farhadi speaks of Fouad’s wounded pride and suggests that his violent actions came from “taking revenge” on the situation he had been placed under, he also notes of the young actor, Elyes Aguis that “he was a very proud little boy too.”
If anything, this hints at the way in which Farhadi worked with the children to elicit results. “For both of them, there was no difference in being in front of the camera or behind it,” he confirms. “They were acting their life.” It’s this sense of emotional realism that dominates The Past, and Farhadi’s depiction of the family dynamic. “They did spend a lot of time together,” he says. “I even sent Bérénice, Ali and the kids to a park in Paris together … to play games and spend the whole day together to capture the feeling of really being a family.”
Yet, for all the naturalistic authenticity, Farhadi likens the film to a detective story with the passive bystander Ahmad the amateur gumshoe. The crux of the movie comes, almost casually tossed, over dinner: Samir’s wife has been in a coma for eight months after she tried to commit suicide by drinking detergent – presumably, thinks Lucie, because she found out about Samir’s affair with Marie. Amongst, the coma and sorrow, the story unfolds, while Ahmad is gradually drawn into a web of interpersonal histories – one as tangled as the figurines that adorn Marie’s kitchen lampshade.
This narrative device keeps the film engaging throughout and the symbolism doesn’t stop there. Take Marie’s house, a ramshackle building in the suburbs of Paris. “I liked the graphic texture of this image of this house,” says Farhadi, who together with production designer Claude Lenoir set about creating a distressed interior space in need of repair, and by extension, much like the souls of these characters. “It was a lengthy process to actually find the house for us,” he adds. “I was certain that I did not want a location in the centre of Paris. I did not want to portray the city in the way tourists see it, so we wanted to find something just on the outskirts.”
If this heightens the sense of isolation that the characters feel – geography dictates it’s simply too far to make a quick trip into Paris – the house itself contributes to that. Likened by Farhadi to an “island”, it’s sandwiched between a road and a railway line. “It’s close to a station in order to evoke the past,” explains Farhadi, simply. “I think trains and rails have always been a symbol of the passage of time in the cinema.”
This thought is reinforced since Ahmad has left his homeland and moved to France (echoing Farhadi’s own outsider status as a filmmaker). “The past had to be present in the story of the characters. And I think for foreigners, and people who live away from their homeland, the past is more obvious than for other people. They have to deal with their past in a different way.” Indeed, even before he had the idea for The Past, the director was planning a story set in Germany – showing just how rooted he was in the idea of dislocation.
Curiously for a film that possesses no flashbacks and plays out very much in the present day, the title might seem like an odd choice. It somehow makes you feel that the past always forms part of the present and that no matter how hard you avoid it, ultimately it will catch up with you and it needs to be confronted head on. Thinking about the title, if only Mike Leigh had not already used, Secrets and Lies it could have been more apt to summarise the film. Marie, for example, withholds from Lucie that she is pregnant with Samir’s baby. “What kind of a secret is that?” asks Ahmad, when he finds out. However, these are characters plagued by incidents that have gone before. “You can’t rid yourself of your past,” says Farhadi. “It’s not that time passes; it’s that the past weighs ever more heavily on you.”
Farhadi remembers showing the script to the legendary French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, whose past collaborators include Louis Malle and Luis Buñuel. “He read the screenplay and his first reaction was to say that the past does not exist; what exists are our memories of past events. The past is created through the filter of our subjective feelings, and we re-write events … human beings always aspire to predict the future and re-work the past. But their relationship with both future and past is equally ambiguous.”
In the end, this is a character study of people trapped by their own pasts, quite literally in the case of Samir and his comatose spouse, unable to move forward with their lives. Then there’s Marie, who gradually emerges as a woman who, on some level, is unwilling to get over her relationship with Ahmad (that he even bears a passing resemblance to Samir says so much). “Miss our fights?” Ali asks in one viscous spat – and he has a point.
Ultimately, The Past is not so much an investigation into history but the nature of truth in the relationships – “the most complex” human interaction we can have, says Farhadi. “We’re talking about possible love and hatred, as people live together. There are many different layers, meanings, emotions and feelings. There can be no single definition of a given truth.” Watching The Past clarifies this in no uncertain terms.
The Past is released in cinemas nationwide by Artificial Eye on 28 March.
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