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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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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