The Past: After the Oscar-Winning A Separation Comes the Divorce

Iranian master Ashgar Farhadi and 'The Artist' star Bèrènice Bejo team for a harrowing marital thriller

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Carole Bethuel / Memento

When Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) clears customs at de Gaulle Airport, his estranged wife Marie (Bèrénice Bejo) speaks to him urgently on the other side of a glass partition. They communicate with sign language and words the audience can’t hear.

If The Past (Le Passé) continued in that fashion for the next two hours, it might be an elaborate tribute to Bejo’s performance in The Artist, the virtually silent comedy that swept the Oscars in 2012. But this is the new drama from Ashgar Farhadi, the Iranian writer-director of A Separation, winner of last year’s other big Academy Award: Best Foreign-Language Feature. It’s very much a reprise of that film’s themes: grownups who tear their marriages apart, and the children who suffer in their wake.

(READ: Corliss’s review of A Separation)

After A Separation comes the divorce. Amad has returned to Paris, after four years back in Iran, to finalize the dissolution of his marriage to Marie, a pharmacist, so she can wed her current beau Samir (Tahar Rahim), a dry cleaner. However acerbic the Ahmad-Marie relationship must have been — at the crest of one argument, he asks, “Miss our fights, dear?” — the family tensions on display in Marie’s sprawling suburban house seem ready to ignite into a Syria-level civil war. Teenage Lucie (Pauline Burlet), Marie’s elder child by her first, Belgian husband, comes home only to stomp up to her room. Her opposition to Marie’s impending marriage are mirrored by Samir’s young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), who wears his resentment like a conscientious objector’s badge of honor. Only Léa (Jeanne Jestin), Marie’s younger daughter by the Belgian, doesn’t lash out at her keepers. She quietly observes the combat from a neutral corner.

The Pearl Harbor equivalent for all these hostilities is Samir’s wife Cécile, in a coma after swallowing detergent in a suicide attempt in his store. She was a chronic depressive, Samir insists — but what drove her to try killing herself? Had she learned of her husband’s affair with Marie? And if so, how? Did someone tip her off, through a phone call or an email? A Separation was a kind of courtroom drama played out in middle-class homes, and so The Past. It even summons an expert witness, one of Samir’s employees (Sabrina Ouazani), to testify to Cécile’s instability. The machinations fester and ravel in a plot-driven film that, for all its references to detergents, never lapses into soap opera.

(SEE: Why Ashgar Farhadi was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People)

Toward the beginning of The Past, the title appears on a car windshield, the wipers slowly erasing the words. But Farhadi needs to italicize his message that the past is never past — that memories and old alliances, whether pleasant or painful, haunt us like the relentless spirits of the dead or the not-quite-dead. Lucie threatens to move in with her absent father (as did Isabelle, the main character in François Ozon’s Cannes entry Young & Beautiful). Fouad hates living chez Marie, but not as much as he dreads returning home, where his mother’s evanescent presence would be even more palpable. Ahmad wants to leave but, as the one disinterested party in the dispute, stays on as mediator and sleuth. Only at the end do we discover who really loves whom.

(READ: Mary Corliss’s Cannes review of Young & Beautiful)

In discovering world-class filmmakers, Cannes is often late to the party. Its selectors must think of the other Festivals (Berlin, Venice, Toronto), which often present budding auteurs years earlier, as the minor leagues. After a few promising films, directors get promoted to the majors on the Côte d’Azur. As a consequence, important filmmakers often make their splash elsewhere. A Separation won Berlin’s Golden Bear in early 2011, before its Oscar acclaim and box-ofice popularity ($7 million in North America, a phenomenal sum for an Iranian picture, and $20 million worldwide). Now comes The Past: the Thing after the Big Thing. It has many of A Separation’s strengths — the acute observation of complex characters in a story that keeps unpacking surprises — but they have become familiar. They lack the revelatory wallop of the first film.

By any other measure, The Past meets high standards. The cast is uniformly superb. Mosaffa, who learned French to play Ahmad, sensitively portrays the outsider drafted into a peacemaker’s role. Bejo, know to American audiences only as The Artist’s perky Peppy Miller, is graver, more volcanic, more beautiful here — a prime dramatic actress. There’s stark smoldering as well from Burlet (who looks so much like a younger Marion Cotillard that she played the young Edith Piaf in La vie en rose, which won Cotillard her Best Actress Oscar); then she lets her character’s defiance crumble into little-girl dependence. And Aguis, a gorgeous child with permanent fret lines and outbursts of elfin rage, helps persuade viewers that this is a story as much about the kids as the adults.

(FIND: A Separation on the updated all-TIME 100 Movies list)

Who knows how the grownups’ ties to the past will shape or taint the children’s future? That may be a worthwhile subject for another fine Farhadi film.