Much like his later A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly is a bitter respite from the filmic hierarchy in that it refuses to afford us what might be called an omniscient, privileged position. Instead of knowing everything beforehand, it adopts a perspective that slides between characters and perspectives to construct a multiplicity of experiences or opinions that elide the notion of an essential truth. The most obvious characteristic of this lack of omniscience is the film’s disinterest in imparting a cohesive depiction of the world of the characters, instead choosing to construct a minefield of contradictory, contested opinions. This is, first and foremost, a proclamation against the tendentious norms of cinema where a film’s moral mapping is supposed to conspire to slam that film’s presumptive argument home in the final stretches; in comparison, About Elly always, fascinatingly and rebelliously, feels like it is slipping away from us. If most films are lit toward a primary beam of crystal-clear truth, About Elly refracts the light through the crystal and constructs a variegated, prismatic rainbow of varied perspectives and possibilities.
Not that Farhadi, whose film bears superficial narrative similarities to Michelangelo Antonioni’s most famous film (not to give anything way), replicates Antonioni’s perpetually withheld draw-distant mise-en-scene, where characters are reduced to specks in an existential void known as modernity. Farhadi has a little Antonioni in his austere compositions, but his tone is more reflective than scathingly frigid. Often, it is in fact rambunctious, enlivened by an often constant, open-framed osmosis of people entering into and out of the membrane of the screen; Farhadi is divinely invested in group dynamics and mental structures as they grow out of a conglomerate of individuals, without ever descending, as most films might have, into a sort-of anti-groupthink mentality that denies the agency and reasoning of his individual characters. It is an expression of a group, not a critique of it (the latter is something most American audiences are intimately familiar with in a post-Enlightenment world where communities and teams are heretical terms).
Farhadi’s style is also narratively pugnacious and distorted as it morphs from thrust to thrust, never settling or rising along a clear pathway of emotional highs and lows; instead, he reorients and revisualizes until our grasp on highs and lows are bent and turned to rubber. His narrative shifts are more free-associative than channel-surfing, too, designed less to appeal to our need for immediacy than to invite the chaotic bedlam of everyday life upending daily plans with its own unchecked charisma. The centerpiece shot of the film is a graceful but restive image of a woman’s body ricocheting back and forth across a beach, flying a kite in a singular instance of unmediated bliss. The woman is Elly (who isn’t the main character, nor does she inherently have the most agency in the film, although a more superficial reading might interpret it that way). She spends the first portion of the film being defined and flattened by other characters who wish to pair her up with a male they know. When flying the kite, the film – the camera now snaking back and forth in her first moment of freedom – finally excises the presence of other people in the frame; she is alone finally, sliding out of their preordained visions of who she is to be. She’s so free, in fact, that she floats right out of the film.
I won’t write in detail about the film’s back-half, but I will say that About Elly has studied its Abbas Kiarostami well. Farhadi, like that great Iranian director, is similarly cautious about turning the internal states of his characters into objective truths or solidifying them into essential, premade, finished selves. They are always being sculpted. The most obvious such character is Elly, who is herself constantly redefined throughout the film, with the question of “whether” it would make sense for Elly, based on her personality, to do something (to leave without telling anyone, for instance) questioned multiple times, only for the film to deny an essentialist answer to what “defines” her personality. She is constantly refined in relation to others – as friend, teacher, fiance, and brother – rather than on her own terms. And even the single scene where is she is alone and flying the kit, acting on her own volition rather than being boxed in as a single or romantically attached person, doesn’t define this newfound freedom as her “true” identity so much as counterpoint it to the other identities she occupies in everyday life (even the fluid camera moving back and forth corroborates this sense of fluidity to identity, with her slipping between others’ spaces throughout the film).
This lack of essential character also coincides with the film’s emphasis on “doing” rather than a fixed sense of “being”, as though the characters are actively becoming or being constructed before our eyes and via their interactions with others (they are liquid and not solid states). They lack a psychology – their motivations are not explained or rooted in past events that prefigure their beliefs or actions – and we confront them externally rather than internally, witnessing the fluctuations in their actions and interactions which can’t be contained within a single psychology or explanation. Farhadi’s film, a vision of existence, slips into question after question without any particular answers, but more exotic is the fact that he resists a linear question-by-question, scientific style. Instead, the worries all jumble about before our eyes and in our minds like the unclassifiable animal of life he’s blessed us with. His film is crystalline and precise, but like a diamond, it refracts its light through a prism of thematic bedlam, acclimatizing us to a humble awareness of how indefinable people truly are.
Especially in a world of post-Enlightenment cinema where individual volition is tantamount to sacrosanct status, Farhadi threatens us all by diving into the muck of how exactly identity is catalyzed as an amalgam of disparate, but not necessarily competing, visions we have of ourselves and others. Well after Elly’s corporeal form has left the diegesis of the film, she is still coming into being in the words and thoughts of others; they continue to define her, to decide who she must have been, what she must have wanted, and most likely, to forever change her, exerting agency over her even as she exerts a sort of absent power over them. This expression of self is not only mobile but doesn’t spring from a single, known source (which sounds simple, but look to your filmic norms to see how revolutionary this actually is within cinematic texts). People are malleable, even (especially) when they are physically elsewhere – we are the products of every conversation and thought anyone has ever had about us.
A cavernous philosophical text, if not a stupendous example of formal, visual rigor, About Elly reimagines the very idea of human identity such that one’s self is found not in single states but in the blank, contentious spaces in a dialectic of personal input and others’ interpretations of us. It liquefies and reconstitutes our conception of self. And then, in case we thought we knew the now-solid answer, it turns it all into gas like a cinematic disappearing act.