Edited April 2016
Right as Abbas Kiarostami seemed to leave the once-proud Iranian cinematic world behind for international super-stardom, Asghar Farhadi surges forth like a bullet into the international cinematic hierarchy and tells everyone to look Iran’s way for some of the most daring narrative cinema being produced today. A Separation is as close to a perfect film as I’ve seen in years, exasperatingly constructed with the heft and storytelling grit of a classic drama out of the ’60s European New Wave. Harsh and impenetrable yet warm and inviting, it unfolds with the punctilious craft of a process-driven film that captures human flesh as it struggles to be at one with the cold, angular world around it. Particular in both visual symmetry and human understanding, it marries look, sound, and feel to a scrupulous whole that just demands to be seen.
A Separation plays like a laundry list of strengths, all of them massaged into a cohesive whole by Farhadi’s sympathetic hand. The script is layered and understands both small gestures and grand emotions. The performances, headed by Leile Hatami and Peyman Moaddi as the film’s central couple whose marriage teeters on the knife’s edge, are pinpoint and lively. The film’s verisimilitude strikes with a potent, provocative sense of place and time. It also manages the incomparable feat of straddling the timeless and the timely, being attuned to the rhymes and rhythms of modern day Iran and its characters upper middle-class secular-religiosity without ever passing over the incomparably timeless political and social fable of the whole thing.
The formalist in me weeps with joy at how effortlessly Farhadi defines his characters and their lives through pristine, dedicated camera shifts and frames that separate his characters with greater intensity as the narrative moves forward. He also takes to segmenting them off with diegetic framing devices such as glass panes even when they are in the same frame. But so much of what works with A Separation is embedded in the core screenplay, which crams in more difficult thematic content in the opening credits than most movies would know what to do with in their entirety, never seeming forced or aimless tackling the political and social and making stopovers in the economic and tonally absurd. The best thing about the film might be how surface-level it all is; everything extends down to the core, but none of the film’s technique is willfully obtuse or complex for the sake of complexity. It’s all right there for the taking.
Most spectacularly, and here is what separates (I couldn’t resist) Farhadi’s vision of life from the dry, arid Euro-mausoleums passing for life these days, is that despite the density of the narrative structure, Farhadi always finds time for moments of tonal variance as suggestions of fluctuating human energy that resist the drama of daily life, implicitly revealing the film resisting a purely dramatic “narrative” being imposed on to life. While a stairwell outside an apartment is arguably the source of tragic, dramatic conflict in the film, Farhadi refuses to purely define the space within this narrative conflict; he includes other scenes that convey a different energy around the stairwell, such as a playful bit when father and daughter race each other up the stairs. Even the shocking voluminousness of the cut to them already running up the stairs and laughing (the camera now moving as well), overtaking the quiet sound and stagnant camera in the shot before, presents this scene as an emotional shift in the film, as though it reflects another side of life that the narrative hides away. The fact that they are already running when the scene starts – that we don’t see the totality of the scene – also suggests that other flickers of life exist that we have not seen, that we are only privy to part of the characters’ constantly shifting experiences.
The effect of such a scene, and many others, goes beyond specific characters and into the milieu of life Farhadi captures. There’s a fluxional energy here that is present in the way the film shifts between perspectives of certain characters to destabilize our preconceptions of them, but the state of flux moves beyond characters into a tonal, stylistic flux where humans are not purely defined via the machinations of social conflict. Even smaller moments (like the partial inclusion of a daughter’s school construction project, or a game of foosball) reveal the film’s various conflicts as making their way into already existent lives, rather than fully defining those lives. This sense of shifting tone foregrounds the sense in which we are dropping in on moments in the messy, constantly shifting, temporal experiences of these characters which cannot be contained within a single narrative arc or tonal state. It constructs a world out of different liquid tones, moments, consciousnesses, and perspectives overlapping and bleeding into one another rather than remaining distinct, rigid, and fitting along a linear narrative.
In a way, it reminds us that the constant flux of life and experience resists narrative altogether. Too many filmmakers conspire toward conclusion and ossified crystallization; Farhadi sets up conflict after conflict – mystery, even – and then dares to chisel away, to fluctuate, to break open, and to turn what once seemed clear-cut into a supple tableaux of shifting self-hood and daily experience. It’s entirely telling that the first images we see in the film are monochromatic ID cards imprisoned under the oppressive weight of a copier – human flesh and mental energy reduced, laminated, and flattened into their barest, most statistical essences. Farhadi’s film is an unraveling, an unlocking, a manic liquification of this human essence, an uncoiling of complicated, contextual human energy, to the point where we can never consider reducing a human to any classification, any statement, any compartment ever again. It is for this reason, more than any specific political or social edge, that A Separation is a time capsule film, one of the very few the 2010s have produced.
Locke is an entirely artificial construct. That in itself isn’t a problem though. The problem is that its artifice doesn’t extend past its dialogue and an admittedly tour-de-force turn from Tom Hardy. In its current form, it is a lightly effective one-man show fit for the stage that happened to wander before a camera when no one was looking. And I mean no one. For all of Locke’s strengths, it does not especially seem to have been filmed at all. Someone was probably there, perhaps Hardy himself, to turn the camera on, but it seems a long lunch break was in store and it overlapped with filming most viciously.
While the camera is busy pretending it is filming, writer-director Steven Knight does as a matter of fact work up some proverbial verbal fat for Hardy to chew on and relish with gusto and quiet, seething intensity. And sell it Hardy does; if the film has a pitchman, it is he. But he’s selling snake oil. The drama consists of Hardy trapped in his car as he rushes to a hospital for the birth of his child, born out of wedlock from an ill-timed affair, and struggling to put the pieces of his life back together as they come crashing down around him. He engages in phone conversations with his wife, his son, and fellow employees, all of whom are expectedly flustered and enraged by his claims of infidelity, claims which happen to interfere with his daily plans and which, through sheer screenwriter’s will, cost him his marriage, his job, and just about everything he holds dear. As far as this takes the film, it works, solidly if unspectacularly.
But a man talking in a car can only take a film so far, and I’m not sure it gets Ivan Locke all the way to London. Hardy is great, but the dialogue positions itself between frank and soft-boiled and can’t always find the right side of the line. Plus, it never stops. Fine in itself, but it needs something other than Hardy to prop it up. And that camera is always there, so busy laughing at you with how divested it is, pointing out its unfazed attitude toward Locke’s drama at every turn. It does cut from time to time, I suppose, but even this seems the result of boredom more than investment. Locke’s camera is forever static (Knight clearly so proud of his prose he refused to distract from it with anything resembling a visualist’s eye).
Given the film’s monotonous crawl forward, it might have even proved superior for it not to cut, to train itself on Hardy’s multifaceted, ever transitory performance as a man losing everything he holds dear. At least this way, it would have the good grace of its convictions to hold to, even if those convictions were admittedly more workmanlike than indisputably inspired. The fact is, Locke is a film about a man on the edge of his life, and Locke’s camera needs the fear of god stricken into it to get the point across with more zest. Lacking this camera over the course of 90 minutes, the film becomes tired.
Film is sometimes thought of as a tripod of directing, acting, and writing. This isn’t an especially useful or nuanced metaphor, but it has its place from time to time. For instance: Locke only has two of its legs, one very sturdy (acting) and one a little less so (writing), but it’s missing the most important one. It tries its best to concentrate on the two it has, placing all its weight on them in the process. But you don’t fix a broken chair by putting more weight on the parts that work. Dangerous things happen then, and your film might give out under you in the process.