The Past (Le passé, 2013)

French poster for The Passed.

This is what someone (possibly Jean-Pierre Jeunet) once described as a “people arguing in ugly kitchens” movie. I’ve tagged it as a melodrama, but it’s really an anti-melodrama, because while it’s about extreme emotional suffering caused by relationships, it refuses us the release or catharsis offered by melodramas. It comes very close to being the kind of “bickering couples” story that for me is like fingernails on chalkboard. However, this one never actually crossed over into full alienation territory for me, and I think it was because of the range of interesting characters, the complexity of their interrelationships, and the subtle (if melodramatic) mystery at the apparent core of the thing.

The basic scenario is that an Iranian man named Ahmad returns to France to divorce his French wife, Marie, from whom he’s been separated for four years. They start sniping at each other almost as soon as she picks him up at the airport. Back at her house, we begin to learn both what her situation is now (a new man, Samir, whom she intends to marry, and his young son are now living with Marie and her two daughters) and what the history of Ahmad and Marie’s relationship was, with all its attendant disappointments and resentments. Ahmad gets sucked into trying to find out why Marie’s teenaged daughter, Lucie, has been spending less and less time at home. Gradually he discovers that Samir has a wife who is in a coma, and questions arise about how she entered that state.

In some ways this is a minimalist story, but the complexity comes in the interaction between these six characters, plus an old friend of Ahmad’s (another Iranian living in France) and a woman working for Samir who lives in France illegally. There’s not much direct commentary on the racial realities being portrayed here, but Iranian director Asghar Farhadi provides delicate hints of what immigrant life is like in France. The mystery of Samir’s wife grows and deepens and begins to seem like the source of all the emotional pain on display amongst the characters, but in the end Farhadi is up to something more elusive, if not enigmatic. As I say, there’s no emotional release provided, yet the film builds to a final image that packs plenty of unspoken punch, much of it known only to the audience, not to the characters.

Again, the film just barely skirted becoming merely unpleasant for me. I don’t enjoy stories that dwell on people engaging in emotional warfare or dredging up unhappy personal history. But the characters in this film kept me interested, and in retrospect it’s interesting how my sympathies shifted over the course of the movie as my understanding of the characters’ motivations changed. Ahmad is our anchor at first — a reasonable man who is trying to help the kids resolve their conflicted feelings about what the adults in their lives are doing — but by the end we also see how his need to be reasonable and resolve conflict makes him a perverse part of the problem. Marie (played by Bérénice Bejo, last seen here playing the upbeat, can-do beauty in The Artist) at first seems manipulative and petty (and not at all peppy), but, by the end, hang-dog Samir helps us (and her) see what the grievance is that she’s trying to resolve in herself, even if she’s doing it in self-destructive ways. Even little Fouad, Samir’s son by the comatose Céline, moves from a troubled kid acting out in hateful ways to a young human being who has been forced to deal with a difficult family reality beyond his years to cope with.

I can’t say that I liked the film, or that it makes me want to seek out more films by Farhadi (whose previous movie, A Separation (2011), won the Best Oscar for Foreign Language Film), but I could see why it would appeal to people who like this kind of dead serious, emotionally anguished, unresolved, social-realistic story about people making bad decisions and suffering the harsh consequences. (Social realism = people arguing in ugly kitchens.)

On a lighter note, I was haunted the whole time by the feeling that the young actress who plays  Lucie, Pauline Burlet, was a dead ringer for Marion Cotillard — to the extent that I began to wonder whether it was her real life daughter — so I was amused afterward when I looked her up on IMDb and saw that she played the young Edith Piaf to Cotillard’s adult Edith in La Vie en Rose (2007). Guess I’m not the only one who sees the resemblance.

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