Sunday, 19 January 2014

Unlikely Detectives: Le Passe (spoilers), Part 1

I suspect Le Passe is a film that would play well whether you knew its secrets in advance or not. But don't take the risk that it might not be. Farhadi's screenplay handles its chain of reveals beautifully, and shouldn't be spoiled. If you haven't seen it, don't read this.

To require the services of a detective, there must be a crime, or at least a mystery that points to the likelihood of one. Something has usually happened, the story starting in media res, and only a detective can discern the truth of it. Many films are haunted by backstory, but few are as enslaved by the past as detective stories. And so it is appropriate that one of the most elegantly-written detective stories in some time is Asghar Farhadi's Le Passe.

Early on in the film, two key characters back out of a parking spot and run into something. In this story, the characters can hardly make a move without running into the past. They ignore it at their peril. Towards the end of the story, when one character declares 'I don't want to go back to the past' after all that has come to light, it's hard to see how such an attitude is possible.

Farhadi's A Separation won deserved acclaim for its layered presentation of a civil dispute. Others talk about making films where there are no villains, but in that film Farhadi showed what that really meant, allowing the audience to empathise with all sides of a conflict to such an extent that the desire for a resolution went away. If there are winners, then there are losers, and when you see where everyone is coming from, there's little appetite to see anyone lose.

If A Separation was a courtroom drama without a courtroom, Le Passe is a detective story without a badge or a chalk outline. This piece will step through some of the key aspects of detective stories in terms how they appear in this film: the detective, the investigation, the crime, the criminal, and the ghost. The film fuses the procedural form with a family drama to the benefit of both forms, so its variations on these genre motifs are worth contemplating.

The Detective

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), the Iranian husband of Parisian Marie (Berenice Bejo), is the detective. At film opening, he has returned to Paris at her prompting to formalise their separation. The wordless opening shows the two communicating - muted to audience ears - through an airport's soundproof glass as Ahmad struggles to locate his baggage. The image of a man and a woman struggling to communicate would set a nice tone on its own for this film. But like many sequences where we're deprived the easy idea-train of textual speech, when we're kept at a distance like this, a curious thing often happens. We lean in, we look closer. It's a good way to train the audience's attention for a story where the small details matter.*

So if Ahmad is a detective, what is he investigating? The details of his arrival - the lack of a hotel booking, the absence of a clear reason for the divorce at this time - stoke his curiosity. The house he finds himself staying in has more children than the one he left, and those children are struggling to get over something. It's not long before he's asking questions. There's even a client: Marie. She asks him to find out what's bothering Lucie (Pauline Burlet), the eldest daughter of her disastrous first marriage.

Farhadi's chosen well in Ahmad as the surrogate for the audience's inquisitiveness. Of all the characters involved in this house, he has the most to learn about the cause of its present mood. He's also good in his role - he gets answers easily, yet believably, from all involved. His ability to interact with children not his own separates him from the remainder of the adult cast. Lucie, so closed off to her mother, opens up easily to him.

Ahmad is also no saint. His darker days seem to be behind him, but his own confessional baggage weighs on him. And his reason for being in the same space as his ex-wife's new family is a source of tension in and of itself, particularly once her new partner makes an appearance.


Unfolding via investigation is a clever plotting choice. Potentially dry family exposition about the missing years is turned into a chain of reveals of escalating significance. There is another man in the house, Samir (Tahar Rahim), a younger man of foreign origin. His paint half covers the walls, and it is his son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) that Ahmad is bunking with.

As for Lucie, Ahmad learns that she can't stand to be with either her mother, or her mother's lover. Is it fatigue with her mother's succession of husbands? Is it the discomfort of a teenager on the edge of sexuality being around a younger man? Is it seeing her mother need a younger man? All seem credible, but her true concern is darker than any of these. It takes a reveal from Marie to draw it out of her. Marie is pregnant with Samir's child, so marriage to him is inevitable.

This loosens Lucie's tongue. She holds her mother's new relationship to blame for the attempted suicide of Samir's wife Celine, an act that left the woman in a coma. Marie rejects this interpretation, insisting Celine's depression got the better of her. Lucie disappears. The tense equilibrium between the three adults - Ahmad, Marie and Samir - breaks out into verbal battles of Marie and Samir on Ahmad.

The Crime

By now the ghost behind the household's disquiet has become clear: Celine's attempted suicide. Suicide is a crime whose suspect may seem obvious at first. The crime here is in what caused it. Did she attempt suicide out of pre-existing depression, or was her depression fuelled by knowledge of Samir's infidelity? Marie and Samir arrange for Lucie and Ahmad to meet Samir's shop assistant Naima (Sabrina Ouazani), who establishes that the circumstances of Celine's suicide attempt - which occurred in front of her - point more to depression stemming from her work than knowledge of infidelity.

Then comes the bombshell. Lucie confesses to Ahmad that she knows the relationship caused the suicide attempt, because she sent Celine the love emails of Marie and Samir the day prior to the attempt. She blames herself for the attempted suicide. (This is not the last time a character will outwardly deal with their guilt by blaming others in this story.) Lucie's confession becomes the new crime, as her gesture throws the guilt for Celine's act back on Marie and Samir. Marie explodes at her daughter with an aggression we haven't seen until now and throws her out of the house. The girl is soon re-admitted, but the confession changes the landscape of oppositions. Marie and Samir have worked as a block so far. The new information shifts the primary opposition in the film away from being Marie vs Ahmad to a new axis.

A New Detective

With the investigation pointing back to the client, the detective is taken off the case. The divorce complete, and the ice between Lucie and Marie comprehensively shattered, Marie wants Ahmad out. Ahmad could dig deeper, stay on for the sake of the children. An old friend advises him to end his involvement now, while he still can. In many a detective story - The Conversation, Chinatown, Vertigo - such a warning is the prelude to calamity, as the detective ignores all warnings and insists on his ability to get to the heart of the matter. But Ahmad is a rational person, not a dramatic device, and Farhadi flips this idea on its head. At the two-thirds mark, having served as our surrogate for the story to date, Ahmad effectively exits the story.**

It is not the end of the detective story. The detective impulse remains, and migrates over to Samir. The late-film switch in detectives is risky: Zodiac comes to mind, Margin Call to a lesser extent, as well as aspects of the three protagonist LA Confidential. Farhadi's screenplay has layered in enough alternative perspectives throughout to make the switch from Ahmad to Samir relatively seamless.

Samir is an interesting choice to take on the detective mantle. For obvious reasons, he was the character least comfortable with Ahmad's presence.*** He doesn't take on the role out of admiration, or a conscious desire to complete Ahmad's work. Ahmad has brought new information to light. Samir's one of the implicated. He wants to establish that he has done nothing wrong.

He has a lead that Ahmad would not have. A discrepancy between Lucie's account and Celine's movements prior to the suicide puts his shop assistant Naima in the crosshairs. And it seems even the servant has a reveal in store for the master. Naima passed on Celine's email address to Lucie the day before the suicide attempt, knowing the implications. Samir fires her, but she does not go quietly. Naima puts her action in context: Celine hated her, believing Naima was having an affair with Samir. She sabotaged Naima's work, and was going to compromise Naima's immigration status. Naima wanted to establish that she was not the focus of Samir's affections, and didn't intend harm to Celine. Naima doesn't even believe Celine read the emails, reminding Samir that Celine attempted suicide  before her eyes, not Marie or him. Naima exits the drama, another scalp claimed by the investigation.

Like Lucie's reveal, Naima's reveal folds back on Samir and Marie's affair. Does it matter that Celine was wrong about which affair Samir was having, if it still led to her desperate act? This subtlety does not save Naima, who exits the drama, the first scapegoat for the suicide who actually can be sent away. (Lucie couldn't really be sent away, despite Marie's kneejerk reaction to her reveal, and Ahmad can be sent away but can't be blamed for more than bringing the situation to light.)

The second part of this article will look at the two other key aspects of the detective form that show up in Le Passe: the criminal, and the ghost, as well as rounding out on some of the general filmmaking choices.

* The motif of seeing a conversation without hearing it is repeated twice in the film. 
** Guy Ritchie's Snatch is a very different film, but I couldn't help but think of Dennis Farina's exit from that story. (Perhaps on the cutting room floor Ahmad re-enters Iranian customs with only one thing to declare: "Paris, je ne t'aime.")
*** The awkwardness between the two men is beautifully realised in a tense frame where the two sit on opposite sides of a table for a lengthy beat. They attempt to ignore eachother. Finally Samir leaves the frame, unable to stay in the same shot as his predecessor in Marie's affections.


  1. This is a really interesting take on the film, Michael. Never thought about it that way.

    Do agree that's it's one of the finest of the year, though hardly one of Farhadi's strongest (not that this one is lesser, just that his previous films are greater). To me it finds its best moments when there's the shift of the detective mantle, as the narrative seems to become more gripping.

    Under that perspective, perhaps you could still make the case that Fireworks Wednesday is Farhadi's take on the private detective story - without a private detective, of course - as it contains some of its suspense elements, beginning with the hire of someone to spy on a presumably cheating spouse.

    1. Hi Alex -- Thanks for your comment. It gives me a perspective I don't have, which is how this one compares to Farhadi's films before A Separation. Unfortunately his Oscar winner is the only film of his I'd seen prior to this. I admired this one equally, although the dramatic stakes don't rise so naturally to a climax as they do in A Separation. Also I'm a bit of a sucker for a good ending, and the closing gesture of Le Passe is something else.

      How easily available are his earlier films? I'd love to see them.

      There's still a bit more to come on this (I couldn't fit it all in one readable passage), so do tune in for part 2.

    2. I'm not sure how easily they are available, specially the ones prior to About Elly. But they're definitely worth checking. Your analysis of his talent for unlikely detective stories applies to both Elly and Fireworks. Probably not surprising, the only film I am not particularly attracted to is the one that doesn't follow this sort of narrative, Dancing in the Dust (even though it has an amazing intro, it loses interest along the way).

      Looking forward for part 2.