Faraway, so close: Bérénice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa in The Past
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In Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, it’s only feelings that get hurt

The director of the Oscar-winning A Separation returns with a new family drama, this time set in a Parisian suburb.

The Past (12A)
dir: Asghar Farhadi 

Asghar Farhadi’s last film, the Oscar-winning A Separation (2011), was a true original: this electrifying drama, about the fallout of an Iranian couple’s estrangement, was built like a whodunnit. Suspense sharpened the emotion and emotion deepened the suspense but neither aspect predominated. It felt like a new species of thriller.

The action in Farhadi’s latest picture, The Past, takes place not in Tehran but in Sevran, a Parisian suburb, but the format is unchanged. Once again, there is a separation at the heart of the film. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and Marie (Bérénice Bejo) are having their divorce finalised in court the following morning but that still gives them plenty of time to lock horns over Marie’s current fiancé, Samir (Tahar Rahim), who has moved in with her, bringing his surly young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Farhadi likes to show children witnessing adult imbroglios from the sidelines and there is no shortage of cuts to Fouad looking on gravely as his stepmother-to-be falls into an old, if not exactly easy, familiarity with this stranger. When that doleful expression darkens the child’s face, it’s like a thunderstorm ransacking paradise.

Marie’s 15-year-old daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), is bristling for a different reason. She retains a fondness for her mother’s previous husband and has had enough of getting used to one stepfather only to have him replaced by another. Storming off after an argument with Marie, she pauses out of frame while the camera focuses on Ahmad’s upturned face. “Can I borrow some money?” she pipes up eventually. Farhadi is unbeatable at finding such oases of gentleness in the domestic hubbub, or hinting at the real arguments that lie behind the pantomime ones. When Fouad kicks over a pot of paint, we can see from both his insolence and Marie’s rage that this is no simple case of crying over spilled undercoat. And when Samir discovers that his son was party to another act of inconsequential mischief, his demand for an apology in triplicate seems related to some greater wrong. (It is.)

In every corner of this family there are issues and scar tissue. Fouad, for example, misses his old home, his old life. In this city of immigrants, not all of them legal, he is not the only one. “This isn’t my home. I’m not comfortable here,” says Ahmad, for whom each change made since his departure, even the moving of a bookshelf, represents a minor betrayal. “Me neither,” replies Lucie. But she has a plan to restore balance – and it’s already under way.

As in A Separation, clues, props and red herrings (a broken suitcase, an incriminating stain) litter the set as they would in any mystery. But it’s not only feelings that are being hurt. There is also a potential fatality – a suicide attempt that may not be as straightforward as it appears. While Farhadi’s eye for detail is as unsparing as ever, his style this time around has begun to look formulaic. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” can easily become “Here we go again . . .” His approach to the assorted puzzles in the movie is summed up by those scenes in which tense exchanges (the first between Ahmad and a traffic warden, the second between him and Marie) are staged behind glass, out of our earshot. In short, the supposed intensity of the picture often rests on nothing more sophisticated than the temporary deferral of information.

When Hitchcock revealed a crucial twist halfway through Vertigo, he ensured that for the rest of time his film’s power would lie in more than just structural sleight of hand. For all the emotional honesty in The Past, its surprises seem mechanical once you realise that these narrative bombs are primed to explode at 20-minute intervals. The movie is too smart and assured for any disappointment to be ruinous. I still hope, however, that the zestiness of Farhadi’s film-making will not now be a thing of the past. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times