Two years ago, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi earned worldwide acclaim with A Separation. His tale of an unusual, wrenching domestic rupture won prizes from Latvia to Los Angeles, from Sydney to the Southeastern Film Critics Awards, along with an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
A Separation examined a culture in which bureaucratic strictures thwarted basic human liberty, and reflected class tensions of a particularly Iranian kind—secular, well-off people versus the struggling pious who serve them. For The Past, his high-profile encore, Farhadi, like so many foreign filmmakers before him, decided to work in France with a well-known French actress. Set in Paris, The Past features Bérénice Bejo, the appealing star of The Artist. But The Past isn't a glammed-up piece of postcard filmmaking like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. Instead, The Past is set in a featureless banlieue, or suburb, where immigrants and others live on the margins. It's as charmless as the Tehran we saw in A Separation.
The story opens at the airport, where Marie (Bejo) is picking up her estranged Iranian husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa). We don't immediately know he's in town to finalize their divorce; when we first see them they seem delighted to see each other, making wordless gestures to each other through a pane of glass. But, indeed, Marie is preparing to marry Samir (Tahar Rahim), a strict, humorless but decent character who operates a dry-cleaning business. (Viewers may remember Rahim from his starring turn in Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, one of the best movies to come out of France in the last decade.)
When Ahmad arrives, however, he finds two angry, rebellious children. One of them is Samir's young son Fouad, who is bitterly resentful of the woman who would be his stepmother. The other pissed-off kid is Lucie, Marie's teenage daughter from a previous relationship (Pauline Burlet, who played the child Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose). Both of these children are aware of something that Ahmad is not: Samir's first wife is still alive, but in a coma after a failed suicide attempt. Why did she try to kill herself? Was it her longtime depression, or was it when she learned that her husband was having an affair with Marie? The film is deliberate and often rewarding as it unravels the sad secrets locked away in the hearts of these families, but when the revelations come, the film's final act ties up the story's strands a bit too neatly.
As Marie, Bejo looks great, but she sometimes seems to be in a different movie. This Argentine-French actress has more than a bit of the telenovela spitfire in her, and she appears to be at home in sentimental melodrama or broad comedy (one wonders how she might do starring in an Almodóvar film—if Penélope Cruz ever broke a leg or became otherwise incapacitated). We're never quite sure how the erratic, mercurial Marie ended up in relationships with two low-key Muslim men who somehow remain opaque. Thus The Past ultimately disappoints as it curdles into low-grade misogyny.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Outsiders in Paris."