The first scene of Asghar Farhadi's film "The Past" summarizes the failed relationship between a French woman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and her Iranian husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) with admirable economy. He has just arrived at the Paris airport; she spots him among the crowd of passengers departing customs. Her efforts to attract his attention fail, stymied by the soundproof glass wall that separates them; even when she manages to make eye contact, the two cannot hear one another, and rely on gesticulations and lip-reading to communicate.
Little surprise that they don't even make it home in Marie's borrowed car before the sniping begins. He wanted her to book him a hotel room; she didn't, because last time he said he was coming for a visit he canceled at the last minute, leaving her to pay a fee on the room. Now he's stuck sleeping over at the house... which, incidentally, she shares with her fiancée, a fellow named Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his five-year-old son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis).
The engagement, Ahmad knew about; it's why he's returned, in order to finalize his divorce and clear the way for the wedding. But the living arrangement? Ahmad is ready to seek shelter with friends, but Marie prevails on him to stay, asking him to please talk some sense into eldest daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), a teenager whose moods and rages have grown especially intense in the last couple of months.
Lucie isn't the only child in the house who's troubled, but the anxiety and rage the young ones exhibit stems from a common source: Samir's wife, lying comatose in a hospital after drinking detergent at Samir's laundry. For Fouad, his mother symbolizes, in a vague way, the future and its uncertainties; the sight of her, not dead and yet not really alive, frightens him. For Lucie, the comatose woman is emblematic of the things she dislikes about Samir and Marie; she's a breathing rebuke to what the girl sees as Samir's faithlessness and Marie's sluttish way of swinging from man to man. Ahmad, we eventually learn, is not Lucie's father, nor that of younger daughter Léa [Leanne Jestin]; he's simply a link in a chain that dug in deeper and hung in longer than most. Not that this is really evidence for Lucie's view that the adults in her life simply don't know how to stick around; the film doesn't belabor this, but there's a complicated backstory involving culture shock and depression, an amalgam of which sent Ahmad back to Tehran.
What the film does belabor is a pair of domestic mysteries. Is Marie really ready to let go of Ahmad and move on? There are clues scattered through her conduct during Ahmad's visit that suggest she's manipulating events to rile him, or maybe evoke a response of jealousy; moreover, it's not clear whether she truly thinks he has any special hold over Lucie that will enable him to talk sense into the kid, or whether she's simply using her own daughter as a bargaining chip in a sticky, even unsavory, game of sexual politics and emotional blackmail. (Similar questions arise in parallel over Samir's ability to step back from his comatose wife and simply let that relationship... and perhaps her life... to come to an end.)
The other mystery is even deeper, darker, and more convoluted, and doesn't start coming into focus until midway through the film. What happened to Samir's wife? Why did she guzzle detergent, and what determined the time and place of her bid to commit suicide?
With so much plot crowding the movie, the characters shuffle uncomfortably and even get elbowed off screen for extended periods of time. The script lacks tightness and starts to feel bloated; the direction, likewise, begins to take on an ambling, obsessive feel, spinning details out of details like a procedural. At its heart, this is a family drama about a good man snared into the role of being the stabilizing influence in a home cobbled together out of need, desperation, and the inevitable emotional exhaustion that follows a white-hot infatuation. It's a role he undertakes out of concern, but one that starts to wear him down. Meantime, what dwindling spark Marie and Samir still have they largely reserve for the task of picking at one another -- though Marie does find enough energy to tear into Lucie at one point, when mother/daughter resentments reach a scalding apex, and Samir manages, when compelled to do so, to engage his young son in a conversation that finally gets to the root of the lad's worries.
But the drama is undercut by twist after twist, fresh questions popping up in too-abundant plenitude and with clockwork regularity. What the film dances around and eventually makes explicit (though after taking the long way to get there) is the grasp the past exerts on us, even when holding on (or being clung to) is unhealthy to all concerned. There are some elegant moments of cinematic symbolism here, and a few clunkers; there are also some marvelously executed set pieces. As a whole, "The Past" feels disjointed and out of tune, almost like two films jammed into a single two-hour running time; one fears this might short-circuit whatever future regard "The Past" might have hoped for as a leaner, tauter, more specifically targeted project.