Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Past

You have to take Bérénice Bejo’s Best Actress award at Cannes with a grain of salt. They’re gonna give it to a Frenchie anytime it’s remotely conceivable.

As Marie, a wife and mother whose estranged husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), comes to Paris to finalize their divorce, Bejo gives a performance that’s fine but forgettable; it doesn’t stand out for good or ill. Mentioning it in the same breath with, for example, Cate Blanchett’s career-defining work in “Blue Jasmine” would be inconceivable.

The theme of “A Separation” director Asghar Farhadi’s new film is incomplete information, and the effect of such lacunae on our interpersonal relationships. As a symbolist, nuance is not Farhadi’s stock in trade. He opens “The Past” with Marie and Ahmad, unsuccessfully attempting to communicate through a transparent but soundproof airport wall. Two hours and twenty minutes later, he ends the film with his third main character, Marie’s new boyfriend Samir (the always dependable Tahar Rahim), looking for one response to a stimulus and entirely missing another.

Samir, it turns out, is still married, but his wife lies in a hospital bed in a coma whence she is unlikely ever to waken. We learn first that she committed suicide, then the horrific method she chose, then the timing of and (perhaps mistaken) motivations behind the act. These pieces of information come out in conversations and confrontations among the three leads and three children: Marie’s daughters Lucie and Lea (Pauline Burlet and Jeanne Justin), and Samir’s son Fouad (Elyes Aguis, who turns out to give the strongest performance in the picture).
The effect of these sensational revelations, each timed about fifteen minutes from the one that precedes it, is to cause critics to rhapsodize about layers and shades of meaning. But that’s not what’s really going on here. Farhadi’s keeping information from us that would all emerge in a 50-minute family therapy session, then rationing it out in dribs and drabs. He’s like a child who slowly completes a connect-the-dots puzzle, turns to his assembled guests, and shows it off as art.


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