What Is, Is, by Scott Nye
In discussing his film Upstream Color earlier this year, writer/director Shane Carruth noted that coming up with a decent title is pretty much impossible. People end up placing far too much importance on it, and it rarely quite expresses or enhances the feeling of the thing. Asghar Farhadi didn’t just pick a decent title for his new feature, The Past – he picked the perfect one. The titular time period engulfs the whole of his new film, threatening each moment. The characters spend a good deal of time talking about it, sure, but rarely to reminisce; if anything, they’re hoping to convince themselves that the present is just a little bit more fulfilling, because nothing could be as bad as what’s already come. Right? The title, however, also comes to represent every misstep the film makes, as it slowly moves away from a rich portrait of regret and melancholy towards a sort of melodramatic detective picture.
Ali Mosaffa stars as Ahmad, an Iranian man who has come back to Paris after a four-year absence to finalize the divorce with his estranged wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo), whose new relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim) has accelerated the need for a split, not the least due to her desire to cement that relationship before Samir’s wife awakens from her coma. Yes, I know, it’s all terribly soap opera-y, but that’s the thing about melodrama – it can use outlandish, overwrought life events to get at the real ache and pain of everyday life. All three are tied in very tangible ways to people from whom they have sinced moved on, echoing the emotional binds that will come to be revealed. Adding to the moral complication of the whole affair is Marie’s daughter from her first marriage (Ahmad was not her second, to put it simply), Lucie (Pauline Burlet), whose natural discomfort with her mother entering a new relationship is compounded exponentially by the circumstances under which it has flowered.
For its first two acts, The Past is one of the best films I’ve seen all year. Mosaffa carefully toes a line alongside his character that is at once inquisitive and sympathetic, but carefully distanced from the horror of it all. Marie is an undeniably magnetic woman, beautiful and charming and emitting the sort of natural flattery that comes whenever an attractive woman gets along with a man. It’s incredible the flaws we forgive simply because we feel so complimented that she merely remains in our company. Because Marie is also incredibly selfish and ill fit to care for not only the children to whom she has given birth, but, more immediately troubling, Samir’s boy (Eles Aguis, giving the best child performance I’ve seen in years), who, as one might expect, is having a hell of a time figuring out how they could be visiting Mommy in the hospital while Daddy is spending the evening with another woman, and neither Samir nor Marie seem particularly interested in or capable of assuaging these concerns. Ahmad is able to come in as a detached third party and treat the kid with some decency, but Mosaffa doesn’t play the role with the sort of effervescent compassion with which we would expect such a role to be treated. He looks pretty damn tired the first moment we see him, and he is constantly giving the impression that he would much rather have never even come to Paris. But now that he’s here, he can hardly look the other way.
This kind of moral conviction is too rarely depicted on film, but it’s one of the things the medium does so well – directly showing action while simultaneously conveying that person’s feelings towards it without overstating either. Mosaffa so acutely gives the sense of a man who has not made the best decisions in life, and is trying to get better. Farhadi doesn’t provide flashbacks, he doesn’t give direct text to explain everything. It’s just there, on his face, and that’s enough. Unfortunately, around the third act, Farhadi nearly abandons him to focus on the minutia of plot detail that is so meaningless to the emotional tenor we had experienced to that point. It clarifies some things, advances one character’s story a great deal, but there were so many other, better ways to handle this material that wouldn’t have lost sight of what made the central character, and the film as a whole, so rich and compelling that it seems like Farhadi didn’t even know what he had, placing us with Ahmad only because he could provide our entry point into a whole lot of expositional nonsense. It doesn’t completely redefine the film thematically, but it does really destroy the tone of it. Which, in turn, left me longing for the very recent past (hey-o) (if you’re disappointed in the direction this review has taken, good; I have communicated the feeling I had while watching The Past).