Cannes Review: ‘The Past’ is an intimate but exacting breakdown of several separations

CANNES – For Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi, following up the near-unanimous acclaim of his Oscar-winning 2011 film “A Separation” with a similarly articulate dramatic study of, well, separation was either the most foolhardy thing he could do — or the smartest. An intricately knotted, almost exhaustingly even-handed examination of tensions and untruths in a trio of marriages — one past, one future and one stuck in a purgatorial present — “The Past” further showcases Farhadi’s dexterity as a dramatist of uncommon perspicacity and fairness.

If that’s a dangerous gift to take for granted, Farhadi’s previous films have brought us close to that point; the response of “The Past,” his first film set and shot outside his homeland, is to see if said gift can flourish outside his usual cultural context. The answer is a qualified yes: where fractious Iranian politics complicated the upscale relationship drama of “A Separation” and its similarly impressive predecessor “About Elly,” “The Past” hooks its audience without that degree of subtext. That may make it a thinner accomplishment by a certain yardstick, but good storytelling is good storytelling: whether he chooses to return home or not, “The Past” proves that Farhadi’s international career is ready for takeoff.

In a film where pretty much every other unhappy secret is laid on the table at some point, we never learn quite what motivated the break-up from which everything else in this catalogue of bruised and broken relationships spirals. It’s been four years since Marie-Anne (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) called their marriage a day; the film opens on their first meeting since the initial parting. It’s a civil, brittle reunion in which the polite acknowledgement of surface change (she’s taken up smoking, his hairline has notably receded) stands in for roughly unfinished business. The suggestion is that it was an abrupt withdrawal on Ahmad’s part as he fled Paris for his native Iran, leaving Marie-Anne a single mother to her two young daughters from her first marriage — a largely unacknowledged ghost of a heartbreak in a narrative that doesn’t want for them.

Later in the film, Ahmad teeters on the edge of telling Marie-Anne why he left, a confession that could well lend Farhadi’s script a political dimension. The words never come out; she professes not to care. She may or may not be lying, but it’s water under the bridge compared to the tumultuous emotional rapids the two find themselves negotiating with her new live-in lover Samir (Tahar Rahim) — a marital triangle too preoccupied with additional, problematic third parties for standard-issue jealousy to rear its head.

Ahmad is back in town to belatedly sign the divorce papers that will enable Samir and a pregnant Marie-Anne to marry. It’s a union opposed by both Marie-Anne’s elder daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Samir’s pre-teen son Fouad (Elyes Agui): the latter out of loyalty to his absent mother, comatose after attempting suicide eight months previously, the former for reasons more darkly veiled than standard teen resistance. With mother-daughter communication having reached a near-total breakdown, it’s left to the coolly rueful Ahmad to tease out the details over the film’s densely packed 130-minute running time.

“I wanted to spare you suffering,” one character tells another in the wake of a further bombshell. “Am I not already suffering?” comes the pained if semi-amused reply. Farhadi is laying on the emotional pain almost perversely thick here, but “The Past” is less a melodrama than an anatomy of one, less interested in the salacious hows and whys of devastating personal crisis — many of which are never fully clarified — than in the slow creep of its absorption by all related parties. It never feels torrid or shrill, though its less compelling final act does raise the question of whether a writer can be democratic to a fault: blame is distributed and delegated so many times in the run-up to its ambiguous finale that dramatic momentum takes a slight hit.

Tension between the actors, happily, never wavers, with Bejo a particular livewire as Marie-Anne, a woman who seems to be clinging to her current relationship at least partly because she seems to have grown less self-possessed with every break-up. An Oscar nominee last year for her sprightly breakout turn in “The Artist,” Bejo inherited the role from an over-scheduled Marion Cotillard, and attacks it with the conviction of an actress hungry to surprise — her take on Marie-Anne is not outwardly sympathetic, but has a hostile, last-nerve vulnerability that plays excitingly against the more evenly tempered performances of her excellent male co-stars. (That said, after this and last year’s devastating Cannes entry “Our Children,” which found Rahim married to an even more volatile Emilie Dequenne, one wouldn’t blame the guy for seeking out a nice romantic comedy.) 

For all its rich emotional intelligence and impeccable craft — in particular, “A Separation” cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari has really raised his game here, subtly modulating his own depth of focus with that of the relationships in play — “The Past” is unlikely to surpass “A Separation” in most critical estimations. Then again, it’s unlikely it could ever have done so. Though I’d venture that some of its flaws (including a slight stentorian quality to its most vocal conflicts) are ones it actually shares with its marvelous predecessor, you can only follow an arrival with a return — something that might also be said of the damaged characters of this intimate but exacting film, forever turning in doorways and never quite saying goodbye.