It's not always fair to judge a film by its director's past glories, but it's really difficult to watch The Past and not think of director Asghar Farhadi's prior A Separation, a study of two families attempting to navigate Iran's contradictory and draconian domestic laws while preserving some sense of their dignity and sanity. It's one of those rare movies that briefly appears to ironically dissolve cultural borders by acknowledging minute cultural specificity. Iranian culture, which looks alien and forbidding to most outsiders, was briefly opened up by this film to foreign viewers in a fashion that felt miraculous. It's a work of cleansing empathy.
But The Past's self-consciously similar plot construction won't let you forget Farhadi's last triumph even if you wanted to, as this film also follows a broken couple that's inadvertently pulled into the emotional quagmire of a second family. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is an Iranian man who's in Paris to finalize his divorce with Marie (Bérénice Bejo), who intends to marry her boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim), and, well, it might not be fair to give away much more of the plot than that. The film is a romantic mystery of sorts, and much of the first portion's engagement is derived from attempting to sort out the contexts of various relationships both past and present. Marie has several children born of various fathers, and they have a way, as children do in real life, of escalating the precise tension in the room that the adults are scrambling to downplay, a tendency that eventually leads to Ahmad, perhaps too eagerly, assuming the role of a non-traditional detective.
The film is mechanically compelling, and Farhadi navigates his complicated narrative thicket with an apparent ease that confirms yet again that he's an amazing talent, but here he isn't able to blend the brushstrokes as he has in prior films. In theory, The Past represents an interesting attempt to show that the hypocrisies of a "liberated" culture are, at the root, insidiously similar to the stifling Iranian oppression that Farhadi explored to such galvanizing effect in A Separation. The treatment of Marie, in particular, is meant to acknowledge the illusion of the so-called casualness of Western coupling, in which a woman's prior sexual partners are still continually held against her, even by members of her gender. In Marie's case, it's her oldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who most pointedly judges her, eventually betraying Marie in fashions that are barely forgivable. The past of this film is never just embodied by the mystery that hovers over the characters; it's also too explicitly imbedded in the sexual politics that govern the quadrangle that develops between Ahmad, Marie, Samir, and Lucie.
Lucie is the film's most interesting and troubling creation. Burlet's performance, the best in the film, is a remarkably complicated act of conveying both love and its often-attending self-absorption. But the actress's superb efforts fail to transcend the contrivances of the character, which eventually exemplify the artistic growing pains of Farhadi's efforts to branch out with a Western film. The director has brought his own innately Iranian sensibility to Paris and plopped a distinctly Iranian story into the City of Lights with too little allowance for the cultural differences. This approach partially scans, as one of the prominent males in the film is Iranian, after all, but it's difficult to believe that Lucie and some of the other peripheral characters would be so shocked by some of the revelations they encounter. (It could be as much a generational gap as a cultural one: Lucie often displays the maturity and self-awareness of someone much older, until that maturity is no longer convenient for the narrative.)
This film's twists, and more than a few of these characters' hang-ups, might make sense in Iran, but they're less logical in the context of a more permissive France, however hypocritical it may be, and this disconnection ultimately renders The Past nearly fatuous in its concerns. You're never not aware of the dazzling narrative gymnastics, and Farhadi is so preoccupied with playing a game of who's who that he never allows room for quiet moments that could transcend the busy character juggling and draw us into the heroes' hearts and minds; there's no scene here that exhibits the empathetic imagination that was on display in A Separation when a man weeps on his mentally disabled father's shoulders while giving him a bath. Farhadi's ambitions are admirably grand, as he appears to be after a story of metaphorical ghosts in the key of Henry James, but the end result bears a closer resemblance to a YA soap tarted up with art-house elisions.