Asghar Farhadi's The Past (Le passé) is one of the best films of the season, with remarkable dramatic performances by actors Bérénice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa. But don't expect sweetness and light. This 2013 family character study, a French-Italian production with dialogue in French and Farsi written by Farhadi (who also directed) and Massoumeh Lahidji, deposits us in a chronicle of deep-rooted dysfunctionality, amongst people who seem to be sleepwalking through life.
Ahmad (played by Mosaffa) arrives in Paris from his native Tehran, where he has been living for four years since separating from his French wife, Marie (Bejo). The purpose of his trip is to finalize their divorce in the French courts, ostensibly so Marie can be free to marry her new lover, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad and Marie seem happy to see each other in the airport, but it doesn't take long for their joy to dissipate once they get in the car and begin discussing the family's loose ends.
And they are numerous. Marie's two daughters from the relationship before Ahmad, little Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and teenager Lucie (Pauline Burlet), both live with her, but Lucie in particular is upset with her mother's poor track record in keeping mates — Marie has changed guys three times during Lucie's life. Now another kid, Samir's angry, hurt young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), has moved into Marie's house alongside Marie and her girls, and is causing trouble. The house itself mirrors the inhabitants: an achingly picturesque but cluttered nest in an unfashionable suburb of Paris, unhappily scrunched next to a busy railroad line.
Samir's situation is even messier. He and Marie intend to marry eventually, but Samir is still bound to his current wife Céline (Aleksandra Klebanska), who's in a coma after a mysterious, hastily explained suicide attempt. Céline evidently drank a lethal dose of chemical fluid in front of little Fouad at the family's dry-cleaning shop, and is now clinging to life in a hospital; and there are dark mutterings about the failed suicide by one of the shop's workers (Sabrina Ouazani). No wonder Marie, Samir, Lucie, and the kids are so jittery, and why Ahmad instantly feels so out of place when he accepts Marie's invitation to stay at the topsy-turvy house — the home he formerly shared with Marie and the girls — until the divorce business is settled.
The key to the extended family's misery is Marie. We're familiar with Bejo, the Argentine native, French international actress whose bright smile and sunny personality lit up the screen in The Artist and Populaire. Her Marie is a different animal entirely. Frazzled by life, yelling at the kids, nervously chain-smoking, impulsively picking fights and then making up with her ex at the same time she's sniping at her new boyfriend — Marie seems primed to explode. She's a childish, self-centered wreck, and so is Samir. Each doubt, each ill-considered reaction, every burst of temper plays across her face like heat lightning. We're afraid of her and for her, but above all we're sorry for the kids, especially Lucie, who's on the verge of quitting the family and moving out.
Up against all this, Ahmad appears to be the embodiment of reason, calming Fouad and Léa, counseling Lucie, trying his best to soothe Marie, coolly sizing up Samir. His earlier life with these people now seems to him like a page from long ago, and he relates to them as if he were a traveling philosopher, dispensing wisdom. This is the Paris in which none of the characters is "French" in the old sense (white, Gallic). Instead, it's a Paris of immigrants and their children. For the Iranian-born international writer-director Farhadi, maker of the insightful A Separation and About Elly, the marital strife that plays out before Ahmad's thoughtful eyes may indeed be a metaphor for East-West relations. More likely it's a continuation of his investigations into the essential enigma of male-female chemistry, whether in Iran or in a dreary French banlieue. That mystery is unpredictable, unknowable, and permanent. And in The Past, the more unsolvable the better.