One of the more powerful aspects of Joel and Ethan Coen’s stealthy 2013 masterpiece Inside Llewyn Davis was the way it revolved around traumatic actions that take place off screen, indeed before the film even begins. In my review, I likened it to Hitchcock’s Rebecca (the great formative example of the trope in cinema), and how fascinating it can be to watch these characters cope with events for which we have no immediate context as viewers. The Past, Asghar Farhadi’s French language follow-up to his Oscar-winning film A Separation (a film I have not yet seen, which is an embarrassing hole in my cinema history that shall be plugged tout suite) is another rumination on this concept, looking at how our past experiences shape who we are moving forward for good or ill.
As the film opens, Marie (Bérénice Bejo, nominated for Supporting Actress for The Artist) is picking up her estranged husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) from the airport. He’s come to France from his native Iran in order to finalize divorce papers that will allow her to marry current live-in boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim, of A Prophet fame). Though Ahmad appears to be in good spirits about closing this chapter in their lives, things begin to turn as he catches glimpses of Marie and Samir’s somewhat combustible home life, and how that may affect the upbringing of the three children in the home, Marie’s daughters Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and Lucie (Pauline Burlet), and Samir’s boy Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Ahmad’s addition into such a tense atmosphere certainly ratchets up the stress of the household, and that’s before we find out what’s really going on.
These characters’ pasts unravels slowly over the film’s 130 minutes, as our window into the story, Ahmad, has been away from Marie for approximately four years with little contact to really know what’s going on in the life of his technical wife and her children (both from a previous marriage). The controversy that drives the plot forward comes in the form of just what was going on between Marie and Samir, who were both married when they began their relationship, as well as what happened to Samir’s wife, who is currently in a coma from which she is unlikely to recover. As the pressure regarding the truth behind Samir’s wife and her attempted suicide (which resulted in the coma) begins to build, Farhadi twists The Past into a sort of bloodless domestic thriller; no one is in danger of losing their lives or anything arch like that, but there is this ever-present cloud of suffocation that bears down on these people and their haunted, broken lives. It’s powerful stuff writ small, but the lack of any grandstanding is not a weakness, but instead a strength.
Bejo won Best Actress at Cannes for her portrayal of Marie, and it is not difficult to see why. She is a woman being pulled in what seems like one hundred different directions, by Ahmad, by her children, by Samir’s child, by Samir himself, by the consequences of actions that may or may not have had tragic consequences, and you can see her frayed edges unravel as she is forced to confront her own actions. All she wants to do is move on, get her divorce finalized so she can marry her new love and find some stability, but her past does not allow for such normalcy. She’s far beyond that. Bejo was pretty clearly the best part of The Artist (a film I found lacking in quite a few ways, to say the least), but her role here shares very little with the wide-eyed Hollywood ingénue we saw in Michel Hazanavicius’ near-silent picture. There are glimpses of that electric smile, those warm eyes, but they are buried under years of stress, regret and guilt. When she needs to bring the fire, she is more than up to the task. In truth, I would rank her quite close to Adèlè Exarchopolous in Blue is the Warmest Color as one of the indelible acting turns of the 2013 season, female or otherwise.
Mosaffa (who had to learn French in order to play the part, a fact that I could not discern in the moment) is a strong center of gravity around which the film revolves; he has no particular interest in rekindling his romance (this is not a love triangle film), but instead throws all of his energy into ensuring a healthy environment for the children, none of whom are actually related to him by blood. It’s a touching performance that offers the perfect sort of level-headed calming influence to play off Marie’s increasingly unhinged behavior. Samir has a few extra wrinkles to him due to his proximity to the tragedy that befell his wife, but his role is minor in comparison, though he is similarly excellent in the construction of his character.
There honestly isn’t much of anything to dislike about The Past. It is a deeply felt, affecting drama about actions and their consequences, impeccably performed and engagingly shot with a captivating plot. It is not an easy sit by any stretch, especially as the central mystery unfolds in its second hour, but this queasiness makes the film no less satisfying. This really was one of the best films of 2013, and Farhadi is cementing his place in the industry as a strong dramatic voice of the future.