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The Present Flies, the Past Remains

Hélène Barthélemy, Monday 17 Feb 2014
Still image from "Le passé" ("The Past")]
Still image from "Le passé" ("The Past")

In an interview given last year, Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian filmmaker best known for his Oscar-winning film, A Separation (2011), discussed the influence of theater on his work: “What I tried to take from theater to cinema is that every viewer sees his own movie, and that nothing is imposed to him or her. This means that we cannot see the world with a precise angle. There should always be different angles,” like in theater where everyone sees a different play by virtue of sitting in a different seat. Le passé [The Past], his most recent film, is a perfect example of this principle. Emotions are touched upon, never explicitly detailed. Guided by Farhadi’s precise camera, the film leaves viewers to choose what resonates most with them from layers of meaning within the scenario. Far from being placed in an omnipotent position, the viewer struggles, like the characters, to truly understand their respective confusion.

The Past, Farhadi’s first film outside Iran, is set in a Parisian suburb, and filmed in French, a language the director does not speak. As Hamid Dabashi writes in his book on Iranian cinema, Close-Up, “Iranian cinema took the world by surprise simply because the world got a glimpse of our cinema only after it had decided the character of our culture through the prism of the Islamic revolution.” Decades later, it is hard to surmise whether much of the reaction to Iranian cinema abroad stemmed from the fact that it was cinema about Iran, or was due to its groundbreaking cinematographic methods. In the world-cinema landscape (where Western standards are the norm), a foreign movie is often appreciated for its didacticism, as an element symptomatic of local culture, whether it reinforces prejudices or subverts them. Farhadi’s The Past is steeped in the artistic methods that have distinguished Iranian cinema since the mid-twentieth century; an Iranian film set outside Iran, it deserves to be seen for its aesthetic qualities and to be perceived, as A Separation should have been seen before it, as a movie exploring the intricacies of human relationships—not only relationships in Iran or in France.

Like A Separation, Le Passé depicts the collision of family matters and a criminal investigation, and tries to make sense of a single event. This elegant film follows a recomposing family. Marie and Samir want to move in together and eventually marry. Marie has two daughters: Lucie, a rebellious teenager, and pleasant Léa, the silent spectator of most of the drama. Samir brings with him his defiant son, Fouad. As we eventually find out, Samir’s wife (Fouad’s mother) is in a coma after trying to commit suicide, and the second half of the film, filmed alongside Samir, will be spent investigating why. The first part is seen through the eyes of Ahmad (Marie’s ex-husband), and we discover the situation through him while information is squeezed out of the characters as the plot unravels.

As the movie details, the past resurfaces incessantly, and denying that it plays a role on the present, as Marie chooses to do by rushing into the future, is pure idealism. She oversimplifies what she wants to forget: she often refers to Samir’s wife as dead, whereas she is in a coma; she gets a divorce from Ahmad even though Samir himself is not divorced, and it is unclear if he could remarry or even if he wants to. Her refusal to discuss her four-year separation from Ahmad is a refusal to truly let him go, and the film will leave the tension between Ahmad and Marie unresolved, while it will eventually solve the misunderstanding between Samir and his wife. As Samir says, “we should be able to forget,” but as the last five minutes of the film show, by this he means processing the past, while Marie means burying it.

Although the film has been described as a thriller, the whodunit aspect (as in most whodunits) is not sufficient to carry the film through, nor is the plot particularly convincing: the viewer has to choose between different characters’ perspective, but is only given as much information as each character has. The film is beautiful, accentuated by its long takes and flawless performances, most impressively by Elyes Aguis (Fouad), who acts with contained anger and internalized, at times bursting, emotion. The brilliance of Farhadi’s direction lies in its depiction of confused emotions, tracked diffusely and beautifully, through various story-telling devices.

The most prominent of these devices is the use of material settings that tell the story visually. The house, in shambles as it is being repainted for a fresh start, stands as a metaphor for reconstructing a family, and despite its new color and new furniture, it remains the same house that Ahmad once lived in and that Samir is now moving into. As Farhadi has discussed, much of his filmmaking depends on objects that have a crucial influence on the characters’ evolution. A stain on a dress holds the secret of Samir’s wife’s suicide (much like a broken garbage bag is the source of drama in A Separation), and little details in the house symbolize the characters’ dynamics. Samir is allergic to the new paint, much as he is resentful of Marie since his wife’s suicide, constantly withdrawing from their intimacy. The rivalry between Samir and Ahmad is expressed in the awkwardness of a silent struggle over fixing the sink or turning off the light. A new lamp is installed by Samir and clashes with the three others. Fouad eventually gets to calling Marie his mother and her house his home, a fact that his close relationship with Léa, and their shared bedroom, best embody. The role of objects in the film is not surprising, as they mark the material trace of time: Marie, revealingly, had Ahmad’s stuff buried in the garage. In fact, objects often say more than characters: Ahmad discovers Samir’s existence from finding his papers in the car.

With the house in chaos, the car becomes the locus for more conversations. The film is contained, as in A Separation before it, to a few locations; the car shuttling between them is one of the rare places where some form of uninterrupted intimacy is possible, as opposed to the house, where every conversation is constantly disturbed. The device is a familiar one in Iranian cinema: Kiarostami’s Close-Up starts in a car, and Taste of Cherry and Ten are primarily filmed  in cars, but in each case it is used radically differently. In Kiarostami’s movies, the car is a space for fluid interactions with other characters and with the outside world, a place where one can drift, awaiting chance: the drivers pick up passengers, ask for directions, speak to people, look outside, travel. In The Past, the car is an extension of the home: closed, meant for personal conversation, and filled with stuff, from lamps to dry-cleaning.

The film is filmed mostly in the house and garden, and thus conveys a somewhat oppressive atmosphere. The lack of a clear truth is reflected in the movie’s use of light, gray and dim, often passing through opaque windows. The isolation of the family, and the almost complete absence of technological communication, save a home phone, and of interactions with outside friends, contribute to the director’s immersion of the viewer in the dynamics of the familial atmosphere. Immaterial forms of communication seem to consistently falter: Ahmad, for instance does not get Marie’s email telling him she had a new man in her life; Lucie’s phone conversation is with the wrong woman; and emails read by the wrong person hold the key to the drama (the fact that no one thinks of checking the emails that are at the core of the drama, to see if they were opened, testifies to the immateriality of the digital world).

The abundance of car scenes and the family’s restrained universe reflect the Parisian suburbs where the characters live, but contribute to producing the outside world as threatening: Fouad remains in the subway as his father is leaving; when Lucie is expelled from home and walks alongside the highway, we feel the weight of the outside in all its lack of familiarity. The difference between inside/outside signifies belonging to the family: Ahmad initially wants to stay in a hotel but ends up staying at Marie’s and becomes involved in family issues. When he arrives, the house is filmed from outside the fence, but when he leaves, he is seen leaving through the fence: the house and family stay behind while he goes on.

Farhadi’s film is above all a story of trying to find a home among new family members, or integrating a home that is no longer one’s own. Both Ahmad and Fouad struggle with this, and an unspoken complicity arises between the two. They both struggle with opposite issues on account of one another. Fouad is initially upset by the arrival of Ahmad, who he sees as disturbing the fragile equilibrium that had installed itself in his life, in his attempt to make this house a home. Similarly, Ahmad returns to a home that was once his, but where the paint color has changed and furniture has moved, a new man and child live, and moments of intimacy with Marie are no longer possible: in an awkward scene, he burns Marie as he helps her blow-dry her hair. It cannot be both Fouad’s home and Ahmad’s.

Some have criticized the movie for its gloom, but despite the heavy storyline, rather than being overdramatic and theatrical, Farhadi’s filming is discrete. He reveals more emotion with his trailing camera, through a profusion of details, than through overwrought dialogues—the scenes of violent outburst do less than their silent counterparts. Little Fouad’s anxiety at sleeping upstairs with Ahmad is evoked by the shadow of his pattering feet seen under the bathroom door. Marie’s hand on Samir’s in the car, awkwardly pushed away, captures the state of their relationship. When Fouad has to leave the house, he takes his toothbrush out of the bathroom sink. Some sentences carry wondrous weight: when, at his father’s store, Fouad says he doesn’t like “downstairs,” we understand in his anguished tone it is because he saw his mother try to die there. Silences, of confrontation or unease, carry even more power. In one scene, after disagreeing on a parental issue, Ahmad and Samir sit together at the table in silence, glancing defensively at each other. The camera, rather than inspecting faces for tears or frowns, tactfully stays outside the door, mirroring a character’s reserve or his attempt to create a distance, requiring viewers to imagine the details of a scene and to come up with an interpretation.

Farhadi therefore marvelously handles Robert Bresson’s aesthetic adage: “The difficulty is that all art is both abstract and suggestive at the same time. You can’t show everything. If you do, it’s no longer art. Art lies in suggestion…We have to let the viewer gradually imagine, hope to imagine, and keep them in a constant state of participation…We must let the mystery remain. Life is mysterious, and we should see that on screen.” Farhadi’s melding of unsolved crimes and family dynamics leaves viewers to elaborate their own hypotheses, and guided by visual emotion, fumbling for truth. By letting emotions remain unspoken, by hiding some scenes and showing others visually, Farhadi makes us understand the very complexity of human emotion without voicing it. The Past is truly a cinema of the gaze: sidelong glances embody the whole drama. Speech seems insincere and inadequate. Throughout the film, most characters see the others interact through the same window, conveying envy or tenderness. Long takes are often made to follow different characters’ gazes, a characteristic of Iranian cinema that is a familiar aspect of Farhadi’s style.

In the movie, Farhadi seizes upon the anguish of most re-composed families, where the non-parent does not have authority over the child of his or her companion, where the home is in constant transit, where the children’s helplessness alternates with their revolt. Dragged along, the children struggle to understand, either erratically angry or surprisingly wise: as Samir deters the question of his wife’s suicide, his son’s logic is unerring: “she killed herself because she wanted to die.”

In the end, Farhadi’s film reveals the true fact that the familial structure offers no place for less traditional roles: Ahmad lived for four years with children who are not his, and, despite the fact that they trust and love him, he has no claim on them. At the end of the movie, he is dismissed from Marie’s life, despite the fact that he helped to mend familial wounds. He is seen leaving the house through the fence, like a bearded Mary Poppins, we can assume, never to come back. As he walks out with one of his old suitcases, we wonder if his mending work will survive—the beautiful, lingering last shot, depending on the viewer’s perception, will either confirm or deny that.

This article was originally published in Jadaliyya.

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