A quarreling couple. A troublesome pregnancy. A deceitful employee. A daughter who knows more than she lets on. If this all sounds familiar, you probably saw A Separation, the 2011 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film (a first for Iran).
Or maybe you saw the newly-released The Past, Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to that Oscar-winning triumph. For a movie that’s all about letting go of what’s behind us, The Past sure has more than a glancing similarity to A Separation, indicating that perhaps it’s Farhadi himself who has yet to move on.
The Past stars Berenice Bejo, best known from another 2011 film that scored at the Oscars — The Artist. She was heralded Best Actress at this year’s Cannes Festival for this film, in which she plays Marie Brisson, a French woman who is still legally married to Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), though a separation has kept them apart for the past several years. They are reunited when Ahmad travels back to France, hoping to sign their divorce papers on amicable terms and say farewell to her daughters from an earlier marriage, who look to Ahmad as a father figure. Of course, almost immediately after he arrives, Ahmad finds himself facing the same old troubles he and Marie had before — and then some.
The Past is not as tense as A Separation. The stakes are lower this time around, though they are similarly centered around a twisty, turny domestic drama. A Separation gave us an insight into Iranian culture, and a story complicated by that government’s refusal to grant a divorce; here, Marie and Ahmad are free to do as they please, and though we sense a lingering longing between them, both are more or less looking to move on. When we eventually come upon the central conflict — and it takes a while to get there — it revolves around the suicide attempt of Celine, the wife of Marie’s current beau, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Marie’s oldest daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) can’t stand Samir, but her reasons are more complex than we are at first lead to believe. All of these characters feel partially responsible for the fate of Celine, who is now in a coma with little chance of regaining consciousness — even Ahmad, who left Marie and the girls so many years ago, which eventually allowed Marie to enter into an affair with the married Samir and thus led to the attempted suicide. (Or did it?)
Most of Farhadi’s characters are living in the past — Lucie carries the guilt of a bold, defiant action against her mother; Marie may or may not still be hung up on Ahmad, repeating the pattern of loving men who will leave her (probably due to her feisty temperament); Samir can’t let go of the hope that Celine will wake up, even though her suicide attempt was a brazen “fuck you” to their family; and Ahmad has come back out of love for the girls and affection for Marie, and Marie’s drama-fueled life is threatening to suck him back in when he no longer has a place here. When Ahmad arrives, the house is in a state of repair — Marie repaints the walls he once knew, literally covering their past. There are several visual flourishes along these lines, such as a nifty title sequence involving a windshield wiper which, like many of these characters, is wiping a slate clean, only to see it immediately tarnished again and again.
The drama is, at times, completely involving, particularly in the middle section, when (seemingly) all is revealed. But Farhadi can’t resist yet another twist near the end, which extends the running time unnecessarily and involves a tertiary character we didn’t need mixed up in this mess. Farhadi again displays a knack for peeling a story layer by layer, giving us information at a very precise moment that changes the way we think of certain characters and events. There’s an almost Rashomon-like approach to the way we experience different points of view, spending time with various characters at different points of the film. (Our supposed protagonist Ahmad all but disappears in the film’s final third, which is a detriment.) The mystery of the suicide is intriguing enough, but also somewhat lacking in stakes, since this is a character we’ve never met, and the repercussions have only a minimal effect on what happens next. Celine is all but dead… so does it really matter why she decided to off herself? Can’t we all just move on?
The Past is too similar to A Separation to be considered an entirely separate work, yet it pales in comparison. Farhadi isn’t testing out enough new material here, since the basic setup is so similar — with two married couples and a young girl caught up in a scandal that may at first seem straightforward, but gradually reveals itself to have more layers than any of these characters knew. The actors are all quite good, yet the theme of holding onto or letting go of the past is too slight to sustain a whole movie — or this one, at least. The story jumps around from character to character so much that it’s hard to invest in any of them. Ahmad is the closest thing we get to a protagonist, but he’s also got the least personal investment in what happens here, which is how he ends up becoming a non-issue in the film’s final stretch.
The Past eventually wears out its welcome as a drama, veering precariously into soap opera territory, with a final scene that speaks (a little too) obviously to the theme. The relationship between Ahmad and Marie might have been mined more thoroughly, but instead we learn more about the people we care less about. Farhadi seems sure of what he wanted to say, but less certain about the specific story he’s trying to say it through. It feels like the warm-up for A Separation rather than the follow-up. Here’s to hoping he strays a little further next time.One more film that’s found itself on the fringes of awards discussion is Philomena, a modest hit that’s likely to be nominated in the Best Actress category (because Judi Dench can do no wrong), and possibly even Best Picture. It’s adapted from the true story of an Irish Catholic woman who was convinced at a young age by “evil nuns” to give her baby up, only to see him sold to an American couple for $1,000 and never heard from again. Fifty years later, Philomena has been grappling with the weight of this decision ever since, and finally decides it’s time to come clean with her daughter and seek the boy out. She teams up with a cynical journalist (played by Steve Coogan) who disdains “human interest” stories like this one but needs the work. He treats Philomena like the subject of a magazine article rather than an actual person, and only gradually warms up to her — even though she’s cute and sweet and Judi Dench.
Just as Martin views Philomena’s story as a fluff piece, Philomena is the equivalent of a “human interest” movie. It’s nice and safe, heartwarming and a little sad, but not too sad, and it plays well with older audiences — which is exactly how it’s been positioned as an awards contender despite the fact that there’s nothing terribly novel about it. Dench is very good, as always, though the role doesn’t require a lot (we’ve seen her do better). The script (co-written by Coogan) and direction insist on holding the audience’s hand all the way through, unfortunately, hitting the central conflict (Coogan’s atheism versus Philomena’s faith) too squarely on the head. There could have been more nuance between these two, but Philomena is more interested in larger condemnations of the Catholic church and the Reagan administration than it is with the small-scale human story. Ultimately, Coogan’s angle on this story may not have been quite what a film adaptation of Philomena needed.
But it’s all perfectly lovely, introducing some controversial ideas without a whole lot of conviction. As in Saving Mr. Banks, the flashbacks are more distracting than they are an enhancement, though there are fewer of them here. Flashbacks as a rule are often intrusions, as the past is usually more powerful when seen only in how it affects the present tense. (The Past, despite its title, uses no such device.) At least it’s easy to see why Dench will likely be nominated — she’s the reason to see the movie.