“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 words “le passé” appear on screen. As the black fades away, we realise the word is superimposed on a window at the back of a vehicle and a windshield wiper that is furiously wiping away water appears to be wiping “le passé” away. Or trying to, at least. It is direct and deliberate but effective in how immediately it suggests the film’s main idea. The misdirection found between appearance and reality, but more perceptibly the inclination everyone in the film has to wipe away the past.
Earlier this week, someone asked me why I only review films in the English Language. That has been purely accidental, so in a fairly dull week in theatres, I thought back to one of my favourite foreign language films of the decade. The Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s French drama, “The Past,” from 2013.
Farhadi is a much feted director, but “The Past” tends to be one of his more forgotten works. This is a film that lingers, its obsession with our personal histories and the way that we can never escape it is a familiar, but profound theme. The real world implications of our own inability to properly face our past is ever-present as the world, in politics and entertainment, is dealing with its own ghosts. “The Past” is that specific kind of movie that I find doggedly following me around for years after seeing it.
The film is not quite a thriller, and yet its beats and its climaxes depend on the shrouding and providing of information in the way you would expect in a mystery film. In a way, the film argues that personal interactions can be as thrilling as public ones. Consider, in the film’s opening we meet a man and a woman. They are an estranged couple. But we do not 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 dependent 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 labyrinth 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.
The film is so complex and 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 have been separated for years, but still enjoy a fairly amicable 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 after the divorce although Marie’s older daughter seems set against this marriage with something more than just typical teenage angst. This is just one part and it seems simple enough until Farhadi thrusts us 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 these details are unearthed, the entire situation gets painfully thorny and knotted.
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 to shine on the darkness in the form of secrets being revealed, it slows until the very final scene, which unfolds excruciatingly slowly. It is, as if, after a film of fitful revelations, the camera is now reluctant to show its hand, as the character we are focused on is reluctant to let go. It is indicative of Farhadi’s impressive awareness of his characters. We cannot really say that any of the characters is unjustified in their conceits. When left in the dark, people tend to run around bumping into things, and wrecking them without meaning to. And, so the film’s ability to empathise with its characters foibles – on all sides – seems profound. This is a Farhadi staple, his predilection to examine all sides of an argument like in his recent Oscar winner “The Salesman.” 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 do not know what a beaming light will rest its gaze on. It also reaffirms the 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.
One of the reasons that Farhadi’s conceit—having key details revealed until late in the film—works is because the film’s structure takes its form from the characters themselves. The way the characters interact with each other recalls the way persons recovering from trauma 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 line, “I don’t want to go back to the past. Forget it,” 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 things Marie seems unable to face. In one of the best shots of the film, she sits smoking in the kitchen with the lights off. It is 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 will not tell us, and these characters cannot tell us. Neither can we. The lights are on in the room and yet we are left with no answers, just myriad questions. And heartache. This is a familiar heartache. We are all trying to avoid something in our past.
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