The Past tells the story of a few days in the life of Ahmad, an Iranian who returns from Iran to France to finalise his divorce. His wife, Marie, who works in a chemist's shop, is involved with Samir. Samir runs a drycleaner's and, it turns out, has a wife who is in a coma, having tried to commit suicide by drinking drycleaning fluid. On one level, the film is a whodunnit about how the wife came to do such a dreadful thing.
Soon after Ahmad arrives at his wife's house, the drycleaner's young son, aged about seven, deliberately knocks over a large tin of housepaint and goes on to have a tantrum. Marie, in good French parenting - and step-parenting, apparently - fashion, yells abuse at him and wrestles him into his room, locking the door behind him. Meanwhile, Marie's two daughters welcome Ahmad, who, it seems, was for seven or eight years a stand-in father for them, (their own father lives in Belgium and his new wife is, according to one of the girls, 'a bit weird;').
The older of the two has been behaving in a way that Marie is frustrated by. Towards her mother, she's been surly, difficult, moody and distant. She mentions to Ahmad that during her lifetime Marie has formed relationships with three different men and none of them have lasted. This is something she does not like. Shortly afterwards she disappears. When Ahmad finds her, all begins to be revealed.
The trouble is, the filmmakers do not manage to make any of this saga particularly engaging, (although, on a very basic level, it pleased me to see the characters living in untidy houses with nothing new or plastic in sight, full instead of battered furniture, much of which looked as if it had been reclaimed from the tip).
The actress who plays Marie is beautiful, but frustratingly irresponsible and quite unwilling to look at events in context. She dismisses the past, possibly because she does not want to contemplate the effect her actions may have on those around her, particularly her own children. Ahmad is almost ridiculously gentle, wise, reasonable and nice, (ie maddening, long term, I'd imagine - he also seems unable to sit in a car that is driven by a woman).
Samir is, thanks to Tahar Rahim, the actor who plays him, absurd - and somewhat rigid in his insistence on right and wrong when disciplining his son, (I think we are probably supposed to judge him badly for this, but I just found his behaviour confusing, since child rearing is an area where I am never certain what is for the best). There is a blurred quality to Rahim's features, a kind of softness and immovability - surely he hasn't been getting at the botox? -that gives him only one expression: the slightly sad and puzzled look of a misused teddy bear.
Nothing much is resolved by the end of the film. Ahmad retreats to Iran. It is unclear whether he would prefer not to have divorced. Marie has refused to listen to his explanation of why he left in the first place. Samir mooches around his wife's hospital bed, wondering if she is still there - a conversation with his younger son earlier quite cleverly canvasses some of the questions that keeping someone on life support raises.
Possibly Marie is for Samir a proxy for his wife. Possibly Samir is a proxy for Ahmad for Marie. Possibly everyone is making a mess of everything - and I don't even want to think about the implication I detected that women, once they have children, should not have subsequent relationships, (from a child's point of view, this may well be true - but only as true as it is that once a man has children he should not, which was not something I picked up with equal force).
If the film is supposed to be a piece of realism, Samir lets the side down by not fully fleshing out his character and the character of Ahmad fails by being more like a saint than an actual human being. If the film is a parable then what does the story of this group of characters blundering on through life, unenlightened by reflection, their actions unexamined, tell us? We may be able to piece together something from their narrative, as watchers, but neither they nor we live in an observant manner. Instead of studying our past for lessons about how to improve our existence, we hurtle into the future, never stopping to reflect. Around us, time flows on, full of the flotsam of our mistakes.