I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
A woman meets a man at an airport. Their greeting is familiar but not romantic… or maybe what we’re seeing is strained romance? Who are they to each other? As she drives him to her home and gets him settled in for a stay, we gradually come to appreciate that they were once a couple, but he — Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) — ran back home to Iran and left her — Marie (Bérénice Bejo: Populaire, The Artist) — in the lurch, and now she has asked him for a divorce, which is why he has returned, for the legal proceedings. She wants to be free to marry Samir (Tahar Rahim: Our Children, Black Gold), who is now living with her and her teenaged daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet); Samir’s young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), is also in the mix.
Be comfortable with discomfort and uncertainty, because that is one of the key — and one of the most thrilling — elements of Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s (A Separation) astonishing family drama: one of its underlying questions is, How do we define family today? I spent a long while wondering whether Ahmad is Lucie’s biological father, until I realized that it doesn’t matter: genetic connection or not, he was her father during a vital stage in her development as a person, and she still sees him in a way that she cannot see Samir; meanwhile, poor little Fouad’s confusion about this new man in the house is palpable and upsetting. (As child performances go, Aguis’s is deeply affecting and utterly plausible. He’s maybe eight years old.)
The calm ordinariness with which Farhadi stages a little act of rebellion by Fouad is heartstopping, like something out of thriller yet not shot like that, so it comes out of the blue and is all the more startling. The whole film sneaks up on you like that. These are the most ordinary of people living and working in a nontouristy, nonpicturesque, working-class part of Paris: Marie is a pharmacist; Samir runs a dry-cleaning shop; their house is in physical disarray, not just the emotional kind, in the midst of completely ordinary sorts of DIY projects. Marie loses her maternal patience in ways that are true to life but far from any usual movie depiction of motherhood; she is neither a paragon nor a devil, but a real woman just trying to cope. It brings a remarkable groundedness to a story about a family broken in several directions trying to mend and move on, and it is unexpectedly riveting… which is also down to the pitch-perfect performances by one of the best ensembles of 2013.
Oh, and one more thing: Farhadi apparently doesn’t speak or understand French. Which is a testament to the universality of the emotions he captures so beautifully here.