In About Elly, director Asghar Farhadi drops the audience into the midst of the comfortable chaos of three Iranian couples and their assorted children and friends as they make their way from Tehran to the shores of the Caspian Sea for a long weekend. Initially, the film resembles a road-trip family dramedy, given its many leisurely scenes of characters bickering over accommodations, frantically packing, and festively cooking and eating. But there’s a subtle chill in the air; something is clearly being prepared for, and this “off” sensation intensifies the audience’s already active role in sorting out the characters’ identities as well as their dense network of past hurts. Information arrives in increasingly foreboding dribs and drabs (a reference to a casual misunderstanding about overnight accommodations, a pointedly emphasized argument about leaving the beach early) ratcheting up a sense of anticipatory unease that’s reminiscent of the early work of Roman Polanski.
The film is ultimately revealed to be a rigorously structured domestic-process thriller, similar in technique and concern to Farhadi’s subsequent breakout success, A Separation. Both are examinations of common social practices (a group family vacation and a couple’s separation, respectively) that plumb macro cultural hypocrisies through a fastidious examination of micro domestic rituals. The explanation for the mystery that eventually arises in About Elly is distressingly simple: Someone presses a frustrated but engaged acquaintance into meeting one of her single friends. But a possessive, sexually puritanical culture renders a criminal conspiracy from this act, compelling two women to fashion dozens of lies that get someone inadvertently killed. When a lady among the vacationing party goes missing, the remainder of the group bickers over which woman should accompany which man to speak to the missing person’s family—out of regard for notions of “decency” pertaining to men’s transactions with women. Gender bureaucracy turns a vacation into a comic nightmare of convoluted negotiation, and people are revealed to be far more enslaved to the subjugations of their culture than they’d care to admit. The free-wheeling jocularity of the first act proves to be a red herring as well as a grim joke.
In theory, this sounds stiflingly thematic, but Farhadi, after only a handful of films, is already a master of physicalizing politics, of enfolding cultural constrictions into the texture of the actors’ movements within their setting. These gifts are on particular display in the film’s incredible central set piece, which involves a near drowning that belatedly sets the plot in motion. The director stages the scene as a procession of contrasting horizontal planes: The relentless crashing of the waves onto the beach, which signal an explosion of escalating tension, play off the characters’ frantic running, which is framed as a series of quick and muscular sideways movements that are punctuated by rapid cutting between the various parties. Farhadi has an extraordinarily fluid and coherent spatial sense that’s also evident in the lively group compositions inside the beach house that fleetingly emphasize, and isolate, telling details among the seemingly spontaneous bonhomie.
Farhadi’s sensibility embodies a combination of empathy and paranoia that’s striking considering that the latter is normally driven by self-absorption. His films are casually informed by the premise that every glancing action matters, often considerably more than the committer of said action could ever allow themselves to imagine. Moralizing is often a bane of thrillers, but About Elly and A Separation derive their intensity, not to mention their narrative ingenuity, from the yearning to explore all the possible consequences of, say, a callous laugh. The films are neurotically obsessed with even common failures of courtesy. Yet, within this concern for decency is a despairing sense that everyone is inherently a prisoner of everyone else’s bad behavior. Farhadi’s a rare sort of artist: a merciless prankster with a streak of unaffected earnestness.