Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives by aeroplane from Iran to Paris, where his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) lives; they have been separated for the past few years when he opted to return to his home country and she had no wish to follow him, but now she has summoned him back because she wishes him to finally divorce her so she can remarry another man, Samir (Tahar Rahim). She already has two daughters from a previous relationship, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and is looking after Samir's son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) at her house, but all is not well, with the little boy in particular acting up and behaving disruptively, though there is a very good reason for that, or rather a very bad one...
To follow up his international and Oscar-winning hit A Separation, writer and director Asghar Farhadi opted to move further afield from his Iranian homeland and make a film in France, where he had received much of his foreign acclaim. Though he was far from fluent in French, he got by and managed to guide his cast through one of his trademark family in turmoil dramas, impressing once again the world cinema scene and fast emerging as the major force to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern cinema, even if you had to admit there was not so much connected to that region on display here other than the leading man, poet and academic Mosaffa, feeling pangs of homesickness during the course of the story.
Nevertheless, that flavour of his origins offered a more interesting take on the traditional domestic melodrama than might have been customary for the majority of French cinema in this vein, though the racial element was not emphasised, perhaps because Farhadi was less interested in that area with regard to what he could do with what turned out to be a cleverly intricate set of relationships. Everyone here is unhappy in their own way, and the film appeared to be blaming the power of love for that, as if it were not so fickle, even fragile, the mess the characters were mired in would never have been a problem. Going back to the start, if Marie had never divorced her first husband, one woman would not be in a coma.
Why was she in a coma? The script dripfed the audience the information necessary to work out what was happening with these damaged people, almost as if Farhadi was making a mystery thriller where every twist and revelation was designed to leave the viewer reeling as they grew more invested in the plot. Even when it got to the end, it seemed to be indicating the troubles were not over, they were only going to continue, not exactly concluding on a cliffhanger but then again, not that far off either as the tangles of the connections the characters had manufactured for themselves were so knotted that you did not imagine they would ever be able to untie them and start afresh with a clean slate of a new life. From start to finish, it was as if they had been cursed never to resolve anything.
Which could make for a frustrating experience of watching them try to sort themselves out to any great satisfaction, though the director coaxed some excellent performances out of his cast, especially the younger members, all the more remarkable when he was not helming this in his native tongue - that had to count for something, right? If there was a drawback it was that the tone may have been realistic, but the events it depicted often teetered on the brink of the kind of melodrama that would keep Eastenders in scripts for a good six months, you could just about accept them while you were presented with each shock, but it did feel like a lot of button-pushing in retrospect. All that said, if you had that morbid interest in others' personal strife that prompted you to watch a movie that lasted over two hours of exacerbating that trauma, then you would probably find much to appreciate here, but if there was ever the sense that relationship films such as this brought out the nosy parker in you, then it was assuredly here. Music by Evgeni and Youli Galperine.