Atlantic Film Festival 2013: Day 4: Le Passé (The Past), Touchy Feely

You know how when you’re seeing a great dramatic movie, and I mean great, the screening room is totally silent, like everyone’s holding their breath? That’s what it was like for the 130 minutes of Le Passé in Park Lane Cinema 3 last night.

The film, the new drama from Asghar Farhadi, director of the Oscar-winning A Separation, is a continuance of the strength of his previous film, a complex and subtle Paris-set tale of step-family and cross-cultural complications. At the airport we see Marie (Bérénice Bejo, from The Artist) meeting Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), catching his eye through glass. They run together through the rain to her car, a van she borrowed, and she almost has an accident reversing in the parking lot. Marie and Ahmad are married, we discover, but he left four years ago for Tehran due to a serious depression. He’s back because he’s agreed to a divorce, which she’s asked for. When he arrives at her home he discovers Marie is living with another fellow, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Marie has two daughters from a previous relationship, tween Léa (Jeanne Jestin), and 16-year-old Lucie (Pauline Burlet). And Samir has a young son, too, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), who’s living with them in a shambles of a home—it’s in the midst of being repainted, covered in plastic, very much in transition. Samir, who’s doing the painting, is allergic to it. Furthermore, he has unfinished business himself—his wife is in hospital.

That’s all I’m saying about the plot. This is a story that grips from the first few moments as we’re forced to piece together a lot of information from the characters’ interactions. The scenes build with a natural rhythm, full of well-observed moments as we get to know everyone. And we discover the hold that past actions, decisions and mistakes, have on everyone involved. Each character is living with the legacy of things done. The intricate unravelling of the plot, while it occasionally moves into a writer-y melodrama, is still so well played out, you never feel the filmmaker’s grip relent. This is spectacular cinematic storytelling, and I felt again, as I did when I saw A Separation, Farhadi’s potent ability throws into stark relief the absence of nuance in so much of what we get to see in the multiplex. This is easily one of the year’s best films. Hope everyone gets a chance to see it soon.

Showing on Monday evening at 10:15pm is Touchy Feelythe new film from Lynn Shelton, the writer/director of the delightful Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve read somewhere her previous film was far more improvised than this one, that this time she chose to be much more script and plot-driven. Whatever the approach, I really wish I liked this more because I think it has some interesting ideas and good character moments.

But the first problem is it’s a film that struggles with that most ephemeral of things: tone. It starts as a quirky dramedy; free-spirited massage therapist, Abby (Rosemarie Dewitt) is thinking of moving in with boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy), but suddenly and unexplainably has an aversion to touch, which throws her personal and professional life into turmoil. Why Abby can’t discuss this problem with Jesse isn’t really explained, but she totally freaks out. Meanwhile, her super-uptight dentist brother Paul (Josh Pais) somehow gets a healing touch, also unexplained, and it’s something he cultivates by visiting with Reiki practitioner Bronwyn (Allison Janney). Paul’s daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page), wants to go to university, but can’t quite send the applications in. Again, we never really understand why. Touchy Feely looks at one point like it might be a satire on both the granola holistic movement and clinical western medical techniques, but by the time the character motivations are fully expressed, the film has become much more dreamy and uncertain. Then it promptly ends without much of anything happening—beyond a really positive ecstasy trip for a couple of characters. Page completists will want to see our homegirl’s work, and Dewitt is typically watchable, but Pais is flat. Taken as a whole, the film is a bit of a misfire.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.