After rattling off a bunch of big-auteur names in yesterday’s post, I felt the need to parenthetically explain who Asghar Farhadi is, which a couple of commenters apparently found condescending. Sorry, fellas. (I tried to reply directly, but for some reason I can rarely comment on my posts when in France. Keep getting an error message. I do read everything, rest assured.) A Separation was a huge critical hit, and I believe a solid commercial success by foreign-film standards, but I didn’t think Farhadi had yet achieved widespread name recognition. Even if he hasn’t, however, that’s about to change, as The Past, which premièred here this morning, vaults him securely onto world cinema’s A-list. Indeed, Farhadi may be the greatest pure dramatist in the world right now—our closest equivalent to such old-school titans as Chekhov, Ibsen, and Strindberg. As with A Separation, by the midpoint this film, I felt like Tommy Wiseau: “YOU’RE TEARING ME APART, ASGHAR!!!”
Turns out he can achieve that effect in any country he likes. The Past takes place not in Iran but in the suburbs of Paris, where Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) has invited her Iranian ex-husband (Ali Mosaffa) to belatedly finalize their divorce, some four years after they split up. Only upon arriving does Mosaffa, who still shares a bond with Bejo’s two young daughters, learn that she’s engaged, although her fiancé (Tahar Rahim) is still technically married to a woman who’s been in a coma for eight months. The precise nature of the incident that resulted in that coma is buried deep at the center of the film’s intricate onion-layer narrative, but The Past doesn’t deal in plot twists for their own sake—it’s another painfully precise disquisition on the overwhelming messiness of human nature, with multiple children caught in the crossfire this time. At times, Farhadi can be a tad blunt in underlining his theme, which is already pretty well foregrounded by the title—there’s no need for exclamations about cars shifting into reverse, for example—and the structural and tonal similarity to A Separation is pronounced enough that The Past lacks the same force of revelation as its predecessor (which, for my money, is the best film of the past decade or so). Nonetheless, this is a magnificent achievement, so dense with the weight of shared history that it’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse into a singularity. Even in the deeply moving final scene, its characters are still being sucked inexorably toward the event horizon. Grade: A
Not every filmmaker is sticking to expert variations on past triumphs, however. China’s Jia Zhang-ke has spent the past 15 years or so soberly examining the rapidly changing face of his country, but his latest effort, A Touch Of Sin, is the bloodiest state-of-the-union address imaginable. Opening with a brutal setpiece in which three hatchet-wielding thieves are gunned down by their intended victim, the film then unfolds in four almost completely separate chapters, each of which builds to another explosion of graphic violence. In the first, a pissed-off coal miner exacts Death Wish-style revenge on the corporate functionaries who ignore him; story two involves the murderous exploits of an itinerary worker; Jia regular Zhao Tao stars as a massage-parlor hostess pushed to the brink in part three; and the last segment sees a young man fail miserably in his attempt to start a new life in a new town. Each of these tales, except perhaps the final one, is horrifically compelling for its own sake, and the sheer visceral intensity lends an extra frisson for those familiar with Jia’s generally sedate nature. (Even in genre mode, he’s still gorgeously measured; there’s a stunning shot in which an execution in a parked car cuts to a sudden fine sprinkle of glass on the ground nearby.) Cumulatively, though, A Touch Of Sin comes across as something of a tract, since these incidents, which are all based on real events, share nothing except Chinese citizens at the end of their respective ropes. What’s more, the degree to which the violent acts can be justified varies from “mostly” to “somewhat” to “not in the slightest,” so that sometimes you’re grooving on deliberately heightened badass vigilante justice and sometimes you’re repelled by uncompromising realism. If it were a progression, that’d be one thing (albeit still didactic), but the back-and-forth makes it seem merely muddled. Encouraging though it is to see Jia stretching himself, he hasn’t quite made a successful transition to populism yet. Grade: B
Over in the parallel Un Certain Regard section, and devoted to films deemed not suitable for Competition for whatever reason, French cult figure Alain Guiraudie (No Rest For The Brave) returns with Stranger By The Lake, which I may not be fully qualified to evaluate for reasons of heterosexuality. Not that I can’t appreciate queer cinema, but this particular entry veers as close to straight-up gay porn as any narrative feature I’ve ever seen, with perhaps a third of its running time devoted to unsimulated sex acts. And as in porn, the storyline is pretty simple: A hunky young dude who frequents an unofficial nude beach/cruising venue falls for a mustachioed himbo, and his ardor doesn’t cool even after he sees Mustache Man deliberately drown his lover. From that point on, the film radiates a palpable sense of unease, as the new relationship between murderer and silent witness grows ever more tense and an investigator questions lakeside regulars about the mysterious corpse. (Repeated shots of the area’s unpaved parking lot, at which the victim’s car sits for days after he’s killed, serve as accusatory punctuation.) In the end, though, and despite a creepily ambiguous final scene, it’s hard to see what Guiraudie is getting at apart from a general conflation of desire and danger. Plus, as I say, there may well be nuances that are just lost on me. At one point, the investigator tells our hero that he doesn’t really understand this gay community’s behavior, remarking that they talk about love but seem to have a bizarre way of demonstrating it, and every word reflected my own befuddled thoughts, both about this film and about other cruising narratives like Tsai Ming-liang’s Good Bye Dragon Inn and Jacques Nolot’s La Chatte À Deux Têtes (which was called Porn Theater in the U.S.). Sometimes, it’s best to admit that you’re just not on the right wavelength. Grade: B-
Tomorrow: Benicio Del Toro plays the title role in Arnaud Desplechin’s first English-language film, Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian), and Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-Eda presents Like Father, Like Son, which I’m guessing is probably not the body-swapping comedy it sounds like.