France has always been a lighthouse to foreign filmmakers looking for different shores. Of course, any number of American directors have found their way there, to Paris in particular, but there’s also an intriguing if somewhat cautionary list of one-off French films made by non-Westerners. Twenty-five years ago, Nagisa Oshima made Max mon amour, about a diplomat’s wife in love with a chimp; no one liked the film, and he achieved little thereafter. More recently, Iranian Abbas Kiarostami made the rather academic Certified Copy before moving on to Japan and the scintillating Like Someone in Love. In 2007, the gorgeous Flight of the Red Balloon seemed to mark a new direction for the Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-Hsien, but he hasn’t managed to release a film since then. Of course, it’s fanciful to extract any impression from such a light sample, but it suggests it’s not so easy to transform oneself into a French filmmaker, to channel that classic allure without losing something of your creative soul. This wouldn’t be out of step with what people say about France in general – there’s a whole mini literary category of bemused memoirs by outsiders who’ve tried to break the societal code.
Asghar Farhadi’s The Past is a highly assured addition to the category, perhaps reflecting that the Iranian director has spent extended periods of time in the city. It starts as Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives there from his home in Tehran, to finalize his divorce from his French wife Marie (Berenice Bejo). She’s now living with Sahir, and expecting a child by him (she also has two from the man she married before Ahmad); he’s also married, but his wife is in a coma, non-responsive, after a suicide attempt some months previously. The film could best be summed up as a series of questions, only some of which are ultimately answered. What are Marie’s real feelings for Sahir (their relationship seems fraught, and her teenage daughter Lucie claims his primary appeal to her is simply in looking somewhat like Ahmad)? What did Sahir’s wife know about the relationship he and Marie were having behind her back, and how much did it push her to do what she did? More broadly, what’s the viability of such a messy family unit, with bonds and living arrangements perpetually shifting, and ongoing ties with previous partners perpetually getting in the way of present ones?
Farhadi won the best foreign film Oscar for his previous film A Separation, which he made in Iran. When I wrote about the film here, I cited how Sight and Sound (in a typical assessment) called it “a film that pays us the compliment of letting us make up our own minds,” and I added: “I find this more persuasive in some senses than others. To the extent that we have to make up our own minds about the facts of the depicted events, it’s largely just the result of a cinematic contrivance, not inherently more sophisticated than any he said/she said police procedural.” Warming to the theme, I added: “I don’t know if being allowed to ‘make up our own minds’ is really such a big deal. I mean, we spend a big chunk of our lives making up our own minds, not necessarily with such stellar results. I think we could use more artists who are actually out to change our minds, and who are passionate about it.”
Much the same kind of praise and counter-praise might be directed at The Past, although it’s not attracting a fraction of the attention its predecessor did (Bejo did win the best actress award at last year’s Cannes festival though). But in a way, the new film’s smaller canvas and relative artistic modesty make the criticism less compelling. The Past is an old-style art-house film, a work that feels calculated more than felt, designed for audiences with a penchant for sinking into extended conversations and anguish and the kinds of ambiguities I mentioned (and, as a not un-meaningful aside, a tolerance for a film where a pregnant woman smokes frequently, with the fact barely remarked on by others). It’s most distinguished by Farhadi’s eye for small details and elaborations. This isn’t the Paris of Breathless and Funny Face, but that of the margins, of the daily grind (in an interview, Farhadi said: “The pitfall for filmmakers working in an unknown setting is to highlight in the film the first things that catch their eye. I tried to do the opposite.”). Much of the film is set in Marie’s house, a superbly envisaged, rickety structure where everything is either actively falling apart or else needs work, heavy with memories and traces. It’s strongly cast too: Mosaffa has a patiently searching affect to him that inherently expands almost everything he does or says, and Bejo’s beauty seems authentically strained here in a way that her best known role, in The Artist, kept artificially masked.
I also thought of a French film that goes in the opposite direction to the one I mentioned – Agnes Varda’s 1977 One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, a chronicle of two decades or so in the life of two women. One of them falls in love with an Iranian man and visits there with him, later getting married and staying on; the looseness he displayed in France starts to fall away, showing him as another perpetrator of the patriarchy, and she ends up leaving him. It’s a strength of sorts that Farhadi – even given all the present-day neurosis about Iran’s place in the world – doesn’t come close to such territory: there’s no suggestion that such issues played any part in Marie and Ahmad’s break-up (unless I missed something, we never even know what Ahmad does for a living).
Not just anywhere
But at the same time, it emphasizes the artificiality of his construct. Perhaps somewhat contradicting the remarks I quoted about avoiding an obvious take on Paris, he said in the same interview: “When you want to tell a story dealing with the past, you need to set it in a city like Paris that exudes the past. This story couldn’t have taken place just anywhere.” But you could easily argue that any human story built on a certain amount of structural and sexual messiness “deals with the past” even as it deals with the present and future, and if this one couldn’t have taken place elsewhere, that seems to say more about Farhadi’s abstract conception of it than about the inherent benefits of the city’s skeleton-channelling qualities. After all, Paris, and France in general, have a whole lot of economic problems, increasingly resembling a super-charged version of everyone else’s, and its societal focus on the past is a big part of why it never gets anywhere in solving them. At some point, the country, like the director, will have to find a way of moving on.