Fittingly for a film that stars The Artist's Bérénice Bejo, The Past begins in silence. A man and a woman, separated by an airport wall, mouthing incomprehensible words at each other through the glass.
They are not, it soon emerges, a married couple, but a former one, four-years separated. Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has returned to settle his divorce with Marie (Bejo). She wants to marry her new lover Samir (Tahar Rahim), whose wife has committed suicide and is in a coma. However, her eldest daughter Lucie isn't too happy about this arrangement, Samir's young son Fouad has anger management issues and in any case it looks as if things might not be totally finished after all between Marie and Ahmad. Incomprehension, it seems, will not be in short supply.
This latest effort from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (whose wonderful film A Separation won best foreign film at the Academy Awards two years ago) may just have been put forward as Iran's entry into the foreign Oscar nominations category, but it feels very French. It is set in France for a start, but it also feels distinctly Gallic in its preference for conversation over action (most of the action has already happened when the film starts) and in its curiosity about ordinary human jealousies.
Bejo and Mosaffa give wonderful performances as a former couple still comfortably irritable in one another's presence, while Rahim (best known for A Prophet) fumbles around his fiancée and her ex with the nervousness of a new boyfriend, watching jealously as Ahmad competently fixes things around their tattered home.
Farhadi coaxes extraordinary performances from the youngest acts - one particular scene between Fouad and his father features one of the best child performances of the year. It says a lot about Farhadi's strength as a director and writer that he so masterfully plots and paces such a complicated film, so that the audience is left not just with a finely observer domestic drama but a detective story too. What precisely has poisoned Marie's relationship with her daughter? Why does Samir's youngest son seem so unhappy? And just why did Marie split up with the seemingly perfect Ahmad in the first place?
One might argue that there are eventually one too many twists and turns here, just a few red herrings too many in the pursuit of mystery. Certainly the film loses its way ever so slightly in the third act, where it starts to strain for resolution. But The Past never forgets its domestic focus, and Farhadi's keen eye for subtle emotional shifts keeps the story afloat. One very fine example is a scene in which the two youngest children argue in a way that almost comically matches the quarrels of their parents. Just as Samir's dry cleaning business tries in vain to scrub away stubborn old stains, so too do the stains of the past prove difficult to wipe clean - even when it comes to the next generation.
The Past (Le Passé) is screening at the London Film Festival on 17, 18 October
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