Une Grande Boite de Vers
Five or six years ago, I was startled to see that the official start of Big Summer Movie season had crept forward to the start of May, when – back before the coming of Day and Date releasing – it always used to be no earlier than June. Now, it seems that the year's really big popcorn blockbusters are starting to appear as early as the back end of March. You might think that this was bad news, should you be the kind of person disinterested in the collected oeuvre of Stan Lee or any kind of film predicated on a massive special-effects investment.
I would tend to disagree, as the more big movies that come out to dominate the multiplexes, the more cover they provide for the smaller independent cinemas to indulge in counter-programming – showing films for a different audience. (Of course, if you don't live near a smaller independent cinema, you are basically stuffed, but that's the modern world we have made for ourselves.) Currently reaping the counter-programming dividend is Asghar Farhadi's The Past (or, in the versione originale, Le Passe).
Asghar Farhadi is most celebrated for a series of Iran-based films, and long-term readers may recall the 'stroke a bandicoot' campaign I launched after seeing his 2009 movie About Elly.... The Past is set in a more familiar context, but it's another acutely-observed human drama.
Central to the story is Marie, played by Berenice Bejo (most famous for The Artist), a Parisian woman whose life is largely dominated by her chaotic domestic situation: she shares her home with two daughters from a long-since-concluded relationship, and the son of the man whose child she is carrying and who she intends to marry. He is Samir (Tahar Rahim), an average sort of guy. However, their relationship has an awkward, never-to-be-discussed issue at its centre, something which threatens to destroy Marie's relationship with her hostile elder daughter (Pauline Burlet).
Our route into this complex, intimate situation is to see it through the eyes of Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), an Iranian man to whom Marie is still technically married. He's in town to finalise their divorce, but while catching up with his stepchildren finds himself sucked into the tensions between them and their mother's intended new husband.
So, no jetpacks, no biblical apocalypses, and no musical numbers in this one, then (there isn't even any non-diegetic music, which appears to be something of a Farhadi trademark). What there is is a forensically-precise examination of the intersections and interdependencies of a handful of lives, and the way in which the regrets and mistakes of the past can act as a dreadful drag-anchor on the hopes of the present and future.
The subtleties and nuances of the central situation are presented with great skill, and, it seemed to me, forethought: for example, the fact that Ali is not the actual father of any of the children he's helped to raise is significant, giving him a sense of binding responsibility towards them but crucially barring him from having any real authority. His well-intentioned efforts to help resolve the situationare arguably counter-productive, but it seemed to me that one of the themes of the film is that everyone is locked in a sort of emotional stasis, unable to make any progression or find any sort of resolution – increasingly, the key figure in the story becomes Samir's wife, who is comatose and unable to provide anyone with the answers they need (the exact reasons for this are, of course, a crucial plot point).
If you were of a certain sort of disposition I expect you could make a case that The Past is implicitly a film criticising the collapse of the nuclear family as a social unit – Marie and Samir are both onto their second or third relationships, and so on – I didn't get any sense of intention in this respect from the film. It's too personal and particular for that – Farhadi just seems to be interested in these people, in this situation, rather than making general social or political points.
You could, I suppose, ask what the point of a film like this is – it's not attempting to push a point of view or send a message, except in the vaguest way. Well, it certainly has value as a piece of art for its own sake – the performances of Bejo and Mosaffa in particular are wonderful, subtle things, and Burlet is also very good. Farhadi's direction is undertstated to the point of being invisible, but every key moment of the story, every emotion is captured.
I have to say that at over two hours long The Past really outstays its welcome by at least fifteen minutes, and the narrative has an odd, lumpy sort of structure – what looks like it's going to be a film about Ahmad's relationship with Marie and the children turns into one trying to uncover the truth about Samir's ex-wife and her condition, in which Ahmad is a very peripheral character. The delicate exposure of layers of character and plot involved is very well done, but I think the film would have benefited had they found a way to get to this stuff rather earlier.
Still, this is a thoughtful, humane drama made for intelligent adults, not afraid to contemplate the complexities of modern life, even if it is naturally reluctant to offer any easy answers to the questions it discovers. Perhaps not quite as impressive as Asghar Farhadi's Persian-language films, but still a viable alternative for anyone looking for a worthwhile trip to Arthouseville.