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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.

Faraway, so close: Bérénice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa in The Past
Faraway, so close: Bérénice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa in The Past

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. 

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