Everybody Knows opened the Cannes competition in 2018 to mixed reviews (although better than usual for the opening film) and it has taken some time to get into UK distribution. I suspect that audiences have discovered the film to be better than some of the early reviews suggested and the film opened reasonably well in the UK. I enjoyed the film very much and the interesting questions for me revolve around expectations for a film by the director of the Oscar-winning A Separation (Iran 2011) and The Salesman (Iran-France 2016) and the extent to which those same audiences know Asghar Farhadi’s earlier Iranian work.
When the film began I found it fast-moving and packed with incident. I struggled to follow all the dialogue in the subtitles and especially the relationships in a large extended family in a small village community. I also wondered if there was something ‘not Spanish’ about it. Later, as I watched Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz I was reminded of the Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain-US 2008) and thought how much better this Farhadi film was. But this does indicate that I couldn’t quite forget that this was a film in which the director was not working in his first (or even second?) language. I later read that Farhadi had written the script before he undertook production of The Salesman in 2016 and after he wrote The Past (2013) – a film largely in French but also with an Iranian character. Re-reading those posts now I realise why, watching the new film, I was reminded of About Elly (Iran 2009). Everybody Knows is a different kind of story in some ways but comparing it to Farhadi’s earlier films and especially About Elly will reveal something, I think. But first I need to sketch out an outline of the new film (without any major spoilers).
Laura (Penélope Cruz) and her two children, sixteen-year old Irene and her young brother, arrive in a small village not too far from Madrid but sufficiently rural to be isolated. They have come from Argentina to attend the wedding of Laura’s sister Ana and they are staying in the hotel in the centre of the village owned by Laura’s elder sister Mariana and her husband Fernando. Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) is at this point still in Argentina. Laura soon meets Paco (Javier Bardem). He was Laura’s childhood friend and the two were inseparable before she went to Argentina but she hasn’t seen him in the last 16 years and now he has a beautiful wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) and owns half a thriving wine-producing business. Laura also meets her father who she is shocked to realise has grown old and frail – though he still has a temper. On the night of the wedding party all is going well until Irene, who had gone to bed early feeling a little unwell, disappears and at this point what might have been a familiar family melodrama becomes instead a melodrama thriller. Is Irene in danger? Did she go voluntarily or has someone taken her? We remember that in the opening credit sequence we saw someone wearing gloves clipping a newspaper story and now those clippings are found on Irene’s bed.
What follows is a typical Farhadi narrative as the family – and the villagers who know something is wrong, but not what it is – begin to squabble and we wonder if lies are being told by some characters and why they might lie. We are back in a Farhadi world where telling lies becomes almost natural and where one lie begats another and so on. The difference is that in the Iranian film, Western audiences are likely to read the telling of lies as indicative of the repression in Iranian society. In About Elly, for instance, a group of married friends from Tehran rent a house by the sea for ‘a weekend away’ and one of the married women invites her child’s nursery teacher, Elly, to come with them. One of the men has just returned from Germany where he got divorced and in a moment of madness the group tell their landlady that he and Elly are a ‘honeymoon couple’. This is the first lie but more will occur when Elly goes missing. Has she drowned in the sea or fled back to the city? What can the group tell the police? They don’t actually know much about her.
In Everybody Knows, there is a great deal of family history that is slowly revealed and it will involve questions of social class, landowner and peasant, as well as relationships and infidelities. The village is a small community in which ‘Everybody Knows’. Most critics don’t seem to equate this family melodrama with any kind of analysis of Spanish society – as they would in the Iranian context. Instead, the film tends to be written about as a thriller genre film. On the other hand, there is something about the cast and the setting that invokes an Almodóvar film and Pedro appears in the ‘thanks list’ in the closing credits. The film it most reminds us of is Volver (2006) in which Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) returns to her home village in La Mancha to experience a host of family memories. The veteran cinematographer on that film (and others by Almodóvar), José Luis Alcaine, also photographed Everybody Knows. Several cast members have appeared in Almodóvar’s films.
I have only been able to find Press Notes in French and they reveal that Farhadi first visited Spain “fifteen years ago” and the kernel of the idea for the story emerged then. At that point in 2003 he had only just begun to make cinema films and the script idea changed over the next few years as he became more familiar with the work of the actors he would eventually cast. He wrote the first drafts in Farsi and had them translated, getting feedback until his Spanish collaborators were satisfied that the script was wholly ‘Spanish’. Because of the high-profile stars who were always busy it then took several years to finally move into production. Farhadi argues that he doesn’t make ‘message films’, implying that he is mainly interested in ‘relationships’. However, I’m sure he knows the history of melodrama and he knows that it has been an important form commenting on and exploring moments of social change. I think therefore it’s reasonable to argue that in the fifteen years or so it has taken the film to emerge, families like the one in this narrative have been affected by changing social mores and issues associated with various forms of migration as well as suffering from the impact of financial crises etc. I don’t want to say more because I don’t want to spoil the narrative for anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet. But I think this will be a narrative worth some analysis over the next few years.
Cruz, Bardem and Darin are arguably the biggest Hispanic-language stars in international cinema and one of the great pleasures of the film is to see them in scenes together. Farhadi’s great strength is in his rapport with his actors. I’ve seen some complaints that the film is too slow in its second half and that the thriller elements don’t conform to genre conventions. Farhadi’s films are long (this one is over 130 mins) but I found every minute riveting. The narrative does come to a conclusion but not what I would call a full ‘resolution’. There are several unanswered questions as to motivation and also about what happens next. It almost feels like a new story might be about to begin. I’d like to see the next instalment.
Here’s a North American trailer (the film is distributed in the UK and North America by Universal):
The Salesman has become indelibly connected to the idiocies of Trump’s attempted bans on Muslims entering America. Director Asghar Farhadi’s film duly won the Foreign Language Oscar with the director unable to attend the ceremony. In the UK, where the film is scheduled for release this week, preview screenings were arranged for Oscar night in response to the ban. If all this publicity means more people are encouraged to see the film that will be a good thing. The Salesman is an excellent film and it continues Farhadi’s astounding run of productions. In many ways the film uses a similar narrative form to Farhadi’s earlier films and this is the only reason why I would personally have preferred to see Toni Erdmann win the Oscar as something new.
The Salesman is most like Farhadi’s earlier films About Elly (2009) and A Separation (2011) in the way it demonstrates how the restrictions on social behaviour and the barriers to open discussion in Iranian society lead to potential tragedy. It’s also ‘different’ for two reasons. First, it operates as a mise en abîme – a narrative featuring a play within a play and encouraging the audience to consider how in this instance Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman might offer a commentary on the lives of the characters and on Iranian society generally. Second, Farhadi supplies a dramatic ending with something of a twist in the narrative (which I don’t intend to spoil).
The film opens with an urgent evacuation of a building. The reason for the evacuation is not immediately apparent, but will eventually be revealed as a consequence of poor building regulations – a literal weakness in the fabric of Iranian society. A couple is forced to move out of their flat. They are Emad, a high school/college teacher and his younger wife Rana (whose occupation I didn’t catch, but I think she is a student/writer?). They are also leading players in a theatre company which is staging Death of a Salesman. The director/producer of the play and a family friend, Babak, finds the couple a new apartment at short notice but unfortunately the previous tenant has left behind much of her furniture and belongings that must be stored until she collects them. There are early indications that Emad and Rana are going through a rough patch in their marriage and it may be partly related to a lack of children. Emad is clearly having problems with his teaching and a class of young men who can’t really see the point of a screening of the classic Iranian film The Cow (1969) directed by Dariush Mehrjui. The young men are not ‘bad lads’ – rather, we get the impression that Emad just doesn’t have the time to prepare his classes properly. More problematic is an incident in which Rana appears to have been assaulted in the bathroom of the new flat, requiring stitches to a wound on her head. Emad is shocked by what has happened to his wife and decides to take matters into his own hands (Rana does not report the incident to the police) and we, as the audience, don’t have a clear idea of what happened. I don’t think I’ll spoil any more of the plot development, only to say that what follows is in many ways a critique of masculinity in contemporary Iran. Farhadi cleverly introduces this issue by showing Emad being humiliated in a taxi by a middle-aged woman who, for no apparent reason, refuses to sit next to him. The humiliation is compounded by involving a third party, one of Emad’s own students who feels embarrassed for his teacher. The more Emad discovers about the previous tenant of the flat, the more obsessed he becomes about finding out what happened to Rana and trying to find someone to blame. At this point the narrative begins to resemble an almost Hitchcockian thriller.
The production of Death of a Salesman is clearly affected by these events involving two of its leading actors. I don’t know the play well enough to comment on the possible links between the two narratives except to recognise that Miller and Farhadi are both concerned with characters who are suffering from their own inadequacies as well as from the problems in the wider society. Farhadi in interviews mentions the importance of the humiliation of different characters and the sense that in both Miller’s play and his own group of characters there are questions about how much certain characters are able to cope with the modernising forces of city living. He suggests that Teheran today and New York in the late 1940s display similar influences of this modernising process. He does explain the links in interviews, but to discuss them here would spoil the narrative.
The Salesman is a deftly plotted film with marvellous performances from its ensemble cast led by two of Farhadi’s regulars. Shahab Hosseini appeared in both About Elly and A Separation. Taraneh Alidoosti has appeared in four Farhadi films. She was ‘Elly’ and also the young female characters in both Beautiful City (2004) and Fireworks Wednesday (2006). Babak Karimi as the producer of the play and all round ‘fixer’ has also worked on earlier Farhadi films. He is a major figure in Iranian cinema with a career as an editor and on one occasion as a producer for Abbas Kiarostami on Tickets (Italy-UK 2005). Farhadi has honed his methods through work in theatre and on TV and now he is able to work with these talented actors to produce complex dramas that seem simple on the surface, but which contain so much in their many layers of meaning. I note from the recent preview screening of The Salesman in London that one of Farhadi’s UK champions is Mike Leigh and looking back at my review of About Elly in a festival screening I see that I mentioned Mike Leigh in thinking about the three films from Farhadi I had seen at that point. Now it is five films and Farhadi’s talent is visible to an international audience. There is a lot more to say about The Salesman, but ‘opening up’ the text at this point would spoil the film for readers and anyway I would need to see the film again to understand more about how Farhadi does it.
The trailer below reveals slightly more of the plot, so don’t watch if you want to avoid any clues as to what happens.
I’m surprised at the relatively low-key distribution of this Asghar Farhadi film in the UK. It’s had some great reviews but it seems a crowded marketplace at the moment (it would have been good to see it in January-February when there were no other major foreign language films around).
This is Farhadi’s first film in French. The accompanying press pack suggests that he had already been working towards a European production before he was awarded some French public funding after the success of A Separation – one of the most celebrated films to win the Foreign Language Academy Award. A Separation also did phenomenal business in France with over 1 million admissions. I wonder if the film is understood differently by audiences familiar with Farhadi’s Iranian work and those coming to him for the first time with this French-language work? The obvious difference would seem to be that in the Iranian films we are nearly always looking for metaphors and allegories whereas the French film will presumably be taken at face value as a form of family melodrama?
The story involves a woman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who has been married twice and is now having an affair with Samir (Tahir Rahim), a married man whose wife is in a coma. Marie has persuaded her second husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) to return to Paris from Iran in order to formally agree to divorce her. She has two daughters from her first marriage, Léa and Lucie, and Samir has a young son, Fouad. These six are the principal characters in the drama. Marie meets Ahmad from the airport and immediately he is wary because she has not booked a hotel for him. Instead she wants him to stay at their house where the three children are also staying. He soon discovers that his presence is required for another reason besides the simple legal procedure. He is needed as a kind of counsellor since it is clear that all is not well in the household.
At first, with the divorce looming I thought this might be a continuation of A Separation. Then it occurred to me that it was more like a French version of About Elly. In that film, once a lie is told, everyone must continue to lie in order not to expose any impropriety in their various relationships (i.e. all the characters are aware of the difficult position of women in Iranian society). In The Past, characters don’t trust each other to cope with the truth, but by lying they make it more difficult to come to terms with exactly what has happened. I’ve subsequently realised that as in Farhadi’s three previous films it is the outsider Ahmad who acts as the disruptive agent in the opening up of the narrative – not deliberately on his part, but simply because he comes from ‘outside’.
Asghar Farhadi has many strengths as a writer-director. He writes wonderful scripts with interesting characters. He directs actors brilliantly and he is able to move the narrative forward seamlessly, albeit at a pace which would be too slow for Hollywood. Fortunately, there is no requirement to cut at Hollywood rhythms so Farhadi’s complex narratives can unfold at the pace he determines. The film is 130 minutes long and at one point when Farhadi peels back yet another layer of the onion that is the script I did feel that perhaps he had taken just one step too far in his convoluted plotting, but his skill is so great that I was soon following the next section of the narrative and through to the delicately handled and well-judged closing moments.
In a film like this it is all too easy not to notice the effort that goes into the construction of scenes. The film was budgeted at €8 million which is significantly higher than the current UK budget for this kind of film, but modest by some French standards. The interiors were constructed in a studio and for the exteriors Farhadi decided not to include any iconic Parisian sights which would detract from the drama. The press pack interview with cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari who also shot A Separation and earlier worked for Panahi, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf is revealing. He suggests that the tension and frantic activity in A Separation (in which there are many quasi-legal disputes about who did what) was achieved through handheld camerawork. The Past started as another handheld shoot, but Farhadi soon changed to using a static camera. At the same time some scenes have many short shots and plenty of pace while others have relatively long takes. Kalari argues that Farhadi is very ‘organic’ (he doesn’t use that term but I think it matches what he means). He tries to avoid the artificialty of ‘acting’ or ‘perfect compositions’. Here’s an extract from the interview in which he explains what is different from the approach in A Separation:
. . . here the camera takes on the point of view of each character. In this film, the characters get close to each other, while still maintaining a certain distance from one another. But they are gathered together in sorts of choral sequences. And so, Asghar Farhadi has taken on the way each character views the others and the situation. And then, there was also something that my team was constantly talking about here, something they found both disconcerting and interesting: Mr Farhadi placed the actors in the most uncomfortable situations and the most complicated in terms of lighting and setting up the shot. He would place them in doorframes, which is something we avoid at all costs in the cinema . . .
One thing to note here is that Farhadi is not a ‘social realist’ or ‘neo-realist’ in his approach (see discussion of A Separation on this blog). In some ways, and perhaps because of his theatre background, he seems nearer to Mike Leigh. (Farhadi also rehearses his actors for several weeks before shooting begins, taking them through various exercises and encouraging them to learn about their characters.) I should also point out that for most of the film, Farhadi makes only a limited use of music and the film only begins to resemble a melodrama in the final section. I do wonder about the symbolism of some elements of mise en scène but I think I need to see the whole film again before I explore the idea further.
I note that one of the features of Farhadi’s script for A Separation was that it was in some ways a universal story, even though it included elements only found in Iran. The Past is also a universal story but without the obvious restrictions on social behaviour that exist in contemporary Iran. Could the film be set anywhere in the West? Is there anything specifically ‘French’ about it? One obvious observation is that the restrictions in Iran derive from certain attitudes towards Muslim teachings and in France the whole question of ‘integration’ and the secular French state is still very much a live issue. There is no reference to Muslim culture as such in The Past. As far as I am aware, Marie is not from a ‘minority community’ in France – but she has chosen to live with first Ahmad and then Samir (one of the children suggests that Samir looks a little like Ahmad – that he is a kind of ‘replacement’). Samir’s wife is similarly not from a specific minority. The French accent is a key distinguishing mark here (once again lost to us cloth-eared anglos). Samir’s shop assistant (he has a dry-cleaning business) is an illegal worker who has ‘an accent’. Ahmad also speaks French with an accent (the actor had to be coached – we never learn just how long the character might have lived in France). There does seem to be a focus on migrant and second/third generation immigrant communities. France is home to many significant refugee communities and Paris is home to a significant Iranian diaspora community – and we should remember that one of the issues in A Separation is whether or not the couple’s daughter would have a better future abroad. Casting is also important. Samir is played by Tahar Rahim, a rising young star associated with key roles related to North African identity in France. But he and the other two lead actors insist that ethnicity/cultural identity/French social issues were not part of the film. Ali Mosaffa says that it is simply a ‘human story’. As if to emphasise this Rahim tells us that Farhadi asked him to watch De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and to focus on the father-son relationship. That slippery concept of the humanist film is very much there in The Past – everyone has a perspective and a reason for doing what they do. They all behave like ‘real people’ do and they have their ‘ups and downs’.
I have to end by praising all the actors’ responses to Asghar Farhadi’s direction. I must pick out Bérénice Bejo since her’s is the most dramatic change of image from The Artist and Populaire. In those films she is smart and indeed ‘Peppy’ in The Artist. In The Past she is weary in loose-fitting, almost shapeless dresses with her hair loose and little make-up – and she looks wonderful. Perhaps it’s the Anna Magnani/Ingrid Bergman look from Rossellini’s films?
About Elly at first sight suggests a familiar narrative idea – a group of middle-class Iranians and their young families arrive in a resort area by the coast for a fun weekend away from Tehran. I thought that perhaps it would turn into a Big Chill type narrative when I realised that the group comprised old friends from university – but then Elly was introduced. She is the nursery school teacher of one of the children whose mother has invited her to join the group, hoping to introduce her to one of the men who has just returned from Germany after his divorce. Elly seems a little reluctant because there are three other couples and just the two singles, but is persuaded to join in with the general festivities. However, the group has already begun to tell ‘little white lies’, joking to the owners of the house they rent by the sea that they have a ‘honeymoon couple’ in their midst (i.e. Elly and the divorced man). The next day an accident involving one of the children threatens disaster and in the mêlée the others realise that Elly is missing. Has she fallen in the sea and been swept away, has she simply gone back to Tehran without telling anyone?
From this point on the narrative ratchets up the tension as each member of the group makes suggestions, some of which make the situation worse and eventually the group finds itself mired in a sea of white lies. No one is prepared to be totally honest. When the authorities are summoned to mount a search, they reasonably ask about Elly and it becomes clear that nobody knows her full name or anything about her background. Was she left in charge of the children? If so, surely somebody knows her background? Her family has to be contacted – but this only makes matters worse when Elly’s real situation turns out to be not quite what the group expected.
I found parts of the film to be almost unbearable – in the sense of those embarrassment comedies where you find yourself crying out “No don’t say that, it’ll only make matters worse!” It was at this point that I realised that the three Farhadi films in the festival reminded me to some extent of Mike Leigh’s work. They all feature a small group of central characters in a relatively closed social situation and social class difference is a crucial factor. The emphasis on social interaction in a limited number of locations makes the presentation of the narrative more like theatre – and both Leigh and Farhadi started by writing plays. There is also a use of certain actors across different films. ‘Elly’ is played by Taraneh Alidoost who was Roohi in Fireworks Wednesday and one of the men in About Elly, Peyman, is played by Peyman Moaadi who also plays Nader in Nader and Simin: A Separation. At least three other actors appear in two of the three films. The odd thing is that though I admire and respect Mike Leigh as a filmmaker, I don’t actually like his films that much – I find them rather cruel towards the characters. Perhaps that’s because I am so close to the culture that produces Leigh’s characters whereas Farhadi’s are necessarily ‘exotic’ and I can be a much more distanced observer. Does anyone else make this connection or is it just me?
Like Fireworks Wednesday, I see About Elly as a satire. In this case there are two targets. One is the ease of lying. In this YouTube clip Golshifteh Farahani, the star who plays Sepideh (the character who invites Elly to the weekend away) discusses the film. She is an actor effectively in exile in Paris who has been criticised for appearing in a Hollywood film (Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies) and she argues that lying is absolutely essential in repressed societies in order to survive – but of course eventually the lies become a kind of false reality. In this sense the film exposes a systematic mode of self-deception. The second target for the satire is the underlying structure of a society that encourages the ‘polite lie’ to avoid offence. This structure sets up complex codes to do with gender relations, religious sensibilities and social class distinctions. So in About Elly, many of the lies arise from a middle-class guilt about being ‘found out’ for doing something silly (i.e. not really checking up on Elly’s background before leaving her in charge of children – note that this isn’t caused by anything Elly has necessarily done, but rather by the fear that if she has done something wrong, others might think that the group had been negligent. Although this has a distinctiveness associated with Iranian society, we all recognise the blustering middle-class person who berates the police to conceal their own failings when we know the officials are trying to do their own jobs professionally. (This also makes me think of another British playwright with an international reputation, Alan Ayckbourn).
The more I think about About Elly, the more it resembles the other two recent films by Asghar Farhadi. ‘Polite lies’ – well-meaning lies, but also real lies that refute the painful truth – are at the heart of Fireworks Wednesday. In A Separation it is not so much about lies but it is about who to believe – with the arbiter becoming the courts. In all three films, it is an ‘outsider’ who is charged with protecting, ‘looking after’, the younger or older family members which in turn becomes crucial in the struggle within the middle-class family or group.
Asghar Farhadi is a major talent and we now need the three films discussed here to be more widely available as well as his two earlier features (as well as scripts and television work).
Website of DreamLab Films – French co-producer/promoter/distributor of Iranian films with resources on both About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday (English version of the site available.)
Trailer with English subs: