Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Lost in the darkness; on The Past, its characters, their secrets and the tragedy they create

directed and written by Asghar Farhadi

The Past opens at an airport We watch a reunion between two people. After a few minutes of the meeting we cut to black and the “le passé” appears on screen, as the black fades away we realise the word is superimposed on the back of a vehicle window and a windshield wiper is furiously wiping away water but it appears to be wiping “le passé” away. Or trying to, at least. It’s direct and deliberate but way effective in how immediately it suggests the films main thesis/theses. The misdirection found between appearance and reality, but more perceptibly the inclination everyone in the film has to wipe away the past. Which is, of course, not very simple.
The Past is full of information, and about that information. The film is not a quite a mystery film, and yet its beats and its climaxes depend on the shrouding and providing of information. So, it is like a mystery. Even more intriguing than the sheer surplus of the information is the way in which everything only takes on meaning because of its context. Consider, in the film’s opening we meet a man and a woman, they are an estranged couple. But we don’t know that at the time. It’s only until we realise who they are that the awkwardness of their meeting becomes so significant, but only in retrospect. The film’s final moment is just as incessantly dependant on context. Again, we are with an estranged couple, but a different one. And again, the effectiveness of the scene and specifically that final shot of the film only become clearer with context. This could be argued about any number of films, certainly. Context is always essential. But, it is particularly true of The Past and its mystery-like ways. The audience is kept in the dark, just as the characters are. And, when we are finally presented with all the information it sort of knocks the wind out of you.

I will return to that darkness in a bit, but before – allow me a preamble. I overheard an argument about The Past on twitter its pros and its cons and the way that it’s really just overly contrived drama. I mulled over this for a few days. Yes, The Past depends heavily on happenstance. The way Farhadi deliberately saves specific bits of information to be revealed at only the most (in)opportune times, is certainly dramatic to the point of being sensational even, and yet I could not quite content myself with calling it contrived. After some thought I realised why I wasn’t as perturbed with the unusual way information was revealed to the audience, and its characters. With its unusual cast of characters, a somewhat estranged, soon-to-be-divorced couple, the woman’s children from a previous marriage, her current lover, his son from a previous marriage and side characters like the first man’s friend or the second man’s employee everyone relationship to the other seems negligible. It’s not, though. At first we don’t know this, and to some degree the characters don’t know it, either.

....more below on the film's ensemble, the way darkness becomes a theme and the film's unanswered questions....

So, as The Past unfolds we feel that we’re in the dark, to some degree. That first scene, why do these people seem so reluctantly happy to see each other but still so awkward? Or later, why is a young boy so churlish to the woman he lives with? That darkness again. Consider the entirety of The Past akin to a large room. at the beginning its bathed in darkness. As it unfolds light appears, but not all at once and not completely. Slowly we travel across it and as the light shines on a part a specific facet of the room is revealed to us watching, and to the occupants within. It is not until the very end when the entire room is alit that we can examine it completely, or its inhabitants against each other. And, in that way, The Past is that specific kind of movie that I find doggedly following me around for weeks after I’ve seen it. Context and perspective comes after the whole and unfolds retrospectively, giving it further effectiveness.

But, as rewarding as it is to piece together the puzzle of what happens in the past (and The Past) after it has happened, the film’s import is to be found in discerning what happens and how things happen while everyone is trapped in the darkness. Whereas the last Farhadi film was low on plot particulars but nonetheless full of complexity, The Past is as complex as it is packed with information. A plot description feels almost unwieldy. The short of it: Ahmad, an Iranian, returns to France where he once lived to divorce his wife, Marie. They're been separated for years, but still enjoy a fairly amiable relationship. The divorce is something of a formality, though, for Marie and her two daughters Luci and Lea (from a previous marriage) now live with Samir and his son. Marie and Samir plan to marry when divorce goes although Marie’s older daughter seems set against this marriage with something more than just typical teenage angst. That’s just one part and it seems simple enough until Farhadi thrusts into the underbelly to get to the whys. For example, Marie is pregnant. For another, Samir is still married. For a third, his wife is in a coma from an attempted suicide. As details unearth the entire situation gets painfully thorny and knotted.

That knotty nature of the film is essential and easily discernible in the way the film's ensemble interact with each other. Marie insists that Ahmad will stay at her house, and not at a hotel, during his stay in Paris. So, past husband and future husband are uncomfortably thrust together with resentful teen daughter, surly young son (of Samir), generally winsome younger daughter and volatile Marie. In an early scene the three children are eating breakfast while Ahmad fixes the kitchen sink. Marie is testily waiting for Ahmad to prepare for court and Samir stands around awkwardly, uncomfortable with the situation. He is aware of just how more comfortable Luci is with Ahmad. The scene is a painfully stark indication of the way histories and past mementos won't easily be relegated to the past. For Marie her past and her future are inhabiting the same space and even without specific notes about her distant past Bejo gives the film's most open performance suggesting Marie as a woman insistent on escaping past disappointments. The way she clings to the idea of her upcoming marriage becomes not so much about Samir as it is about her need for something to go right in her life, just this once.
The film is edited, especially in the first hour, with the sort of forward thrust that marks Marie's personality. The camera rarely lingers on scenes but efficiently, almost breathlessly, moves on. As it develops, and as the light appears in the darkness in the form of secrets being revealed it slows until the very final scene which unfolds so slowly, as reluctant to show its hand as the character we are focused on is reluctant to let go. Its indicative of Farhadi's impressive awareness of his characters. I said in my review of A Separation that “We can’t really say that any of the characters is unjustified in their conceits”. The sentiment is doubly true here. When left in the dark, people tend to run around bumping into things, and wrecking them without meaning to. It is the same here, and the slightest of characters is considered with empathy. The closest the film comes to contrivance is, indeed, a third act reveal of a worker in Samir's laundry shop - but it's in that way we don't know what a beaming light will rest its gaze on. It also reaffirms the way volatility of the world where nothing is ever as specific or personal as you think it might be. Everything is connected. Public and private, then and now.

The entire ensemble is fantastic, in individual moments but particularly excellent when working with each other Pauline Berlet playing the older daughter is strapped with the least effective of the main roles, but manages to play teenage guilt without precious posturing or unnecessary angst. It is Tahar Rahim, though, who gives my favourite performance as Samir, caught between his current wife and his future wife. A train conversation he has with his son is one of the film's (many) heartbreaking set-pieces, but it is in the film's devastating final moments, sans dialogue that are particularly effective. At first, I wanted to doubt that final scene. Why present us with an image of Samir's comatose wife now, Farhadi? And then I realised that even as everyone was feigning the need for development and looking ahead they were all trying to explain away, absolve themselves of, or make peace with the past. Sometimes we hope the past will make the decision for us and disappear, but that final shot made me realise it's entirely up to us. To let go or to release, the onus cannot be relayed to anyone else. That's the tragedy of The Past, then. And of life, maybe.
I don’t want to go back to the past. Forget it.
My initial title for this review was “You’ll never get away from me”. One of the reasons that Farhadi’s conceit, having key details revealed until late in the film, works is because the film’s construct takes its form from the characters themselves. The way every main character operates reminds me of the way that after a traumatic episode persons involved are hesitant, or even fearful, of looking backwards. The film is the same, keeping itself at bay until forced - reluctantly - to reveal itself. When Marie utters the above quote towards the end of the film it’s not a winking line but a sad, and tragic one of crippling unawareness. By that time in the film we have learned what Marie seems unable to face. Or, better, unwilling to face. In one of my favourite shots of the film she sits smoking in the kitchen with the lights off. It’s a pretty image, but evocative too. Maybe, she wants to be lost in the darkness. Which is worse: holding on desperately to the past trying to salvage the unsalvageable? Or bravely, wildly trying to move on hoping to outrun it? Farhadi won’t tell us, and these characters do not know. Neither do we. The lights are on in the room and yet we are left with no answers, just myriad questions. And heartache.

A –


Courtney Small said...

I should really get around to seeing this film. Missed it at TIFF due to conflicts in my schedule and procrastinated on it when it hit theatres.

Alex Withrow said...

Great review of a great film. Bejo really floored me with her performance. A fantastic ensemble all around indeed.