Under the façade of a labyrinthine family drama littered with divorce and re-marrying and children from previous unions, Asghar Farhadi’s new film is a personal story of love and romantic relationships.
Although the protagonists are on the threshold of moving towards a spanking new future, like the house in the middle of getting a new coat of paint, The Past is a ghost that haunts the rooms as it does the corridors of their hearts.
Set in a tired, rumbling, suburb on the outskirts of Paris, the movie is intricately stitched with metaphorical threads every square of the way that culminates in a tapestry of realisation and pain.
In the opening scene, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) sees her estranged husband at the airport arrival hall. With excitement, she calls out and waves. But Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) does not hear her through the glass. He finally turns only when a passer-by points Marie out to him.
We will go on to see how this becomes the drama’s recurring theme in which a clear separation between the characters means messages have to be conveyed by third parties.
As Marie prepares to marry her new beau, she has organised for Ahmad to return to France from Iran to finalise their divorce.
However, far from being the radiant bride-to-be, Marie snipes bitterly in the car at the husband who left four years ago, and appears flummoxed by her angsty teenage daughter from a marriage before she met Ahmad. She asks that he speak to his step-daughter who adores him.
The screenplay by Farhadi, with Massoumeh Lahidji, thoughtfully dissects the anatomy of love when the cigarette smoke of secrets is pumped through its blood.
Despite knowing Marie will soon be his wife, Samir (Tahar Rahim) feels strangely out of place at home in Ahmad’s intrusive presence that seems to reassure everyone else. Not even his son’s mother who languishes in a coma following a suicide attempt has ever made him uncertain about his new-found life.
Mosaffa cuts a calming, restorative, figure in a tetchy, leaky, household even when his character is really the catalyst in a swelling rupture. It is through talking to Lucie (Pauline Burlet), Marie’s angry daughter who resents her mother’s re-marrying, that Ahmad learns Marie chose Samir because Samir looks like him.
The movie is anything but predictable, nonetheless. If anything, it subverts usual expectations. Instead of longing for the mother lying in hospital, young Fouad (incredibly played by Elyes Aguis) tells Samir he wants to live at Marie’s, hinting to his father he’d prefer his comatosed mother to die.
Living up to her award-winning reputation, Bejo gives Marie a stunning emotional journey. Riven by her desire to exact revenge on the man she loves by marrying another, she finds herself dealt a similar hand by Samir who discloses a yearning for his wife’s attention when he was carrying on an affair with Marie.
The brilliant plot works like an investigative narrative. It takes you bit by bit farther into a deepening intrigue until revelations compel a replay of the tale in your head.
Variously explosive and morose, Rahim offers an exceptionally moving end to the film. Discovering his wife’s love for him through a series of chain events, Samir presses forth with trying to revive her in spite of Fouad’s preference for Marie as his mother.
We cannot be sure of the denouement, just as we are not to know whether the painting of the house will be completed. All we can infer from this tightly-drawn, complex, intelligent, and multi-layered, production is that the destiny of a relationship is shaped not by elements outside of it — children, past lovers — unless they affect the weather inside it: the real temperature, the authenticity, of love.