Without any doubt, this film ranks among the best I've seen this year, and maybe even the last few years. It's hard to understand that this film didn't win the Palme d'Or in Cannes. Asghar Farhadi outdid himself with this masterpiece, following up on the Oscar-winning 'A Separation'. The story about a two men, a woman and a girl tangled up in an uncomfortable spiderweb of conflicting feelings and allegiances is an emotional roller-coaster that won't leave anyone indifferent.
The film starts off with a woman at an airport, eagerly waiting for a man to arrive. They meet, they embrace and they run through the rain to their car. The woman takes the wheel and backs out of the parking space. But the rear window is wet and damp, she doesn't have a clear view of what happens behind the car and she almost hits another vehicle. This small scene, that precedes the opening credits, is symbolic for the film: looking back at events in the past, and not getting a clear view of their meaning.
The film doesn't have any flaws or weak points, but two elements stand out. The first is the screenplay. It's extremely clever and well-structured. From beginning to end, the audience gets dripfeeded with little bits of information, so that the viewer can construct the story for himself. Every new bit of information creates new questions, that are answered with new elements, which create new questions, etcetera. In the second half of the film, the revelations get more and more dramatic, and so does the story. The dramatic power of the film increases gradually, which is a great accomplishment, screenplay-wise. Another very strong point of the screenplay is that it tells exactly what you need to know, not more and not less, in a very economical and offhanded way.
The second outstanding feature of the film is the acting. There is not a tiny trace of unnatural or artificial behaviour in the film. The actors are completely believable. In fact it's hard to believe they are actors at all. The only well-known member of the cast is Bérénice Bejo (of 'The Artist' fame), but I must admit I didn't recognize her. Iranian actor Ali Mossafa is great as the sensible outsider who tries to stay reasonable among high-running emotions, but the best performance in my opinion is given by Elyes Aguis, who plays a young boy, upset by the near-death of his mother and the new love interest of his father. The scene with his father in the underground railway station is truly heart-wrenching.
The film is stylistically related to 'A Separation'. It's about how to cope with the failure of a marriage, how the present is destined by things from the past, how crucial events can be interpreted in different ways by different people. At the same time, it's a very different film. For one thing, this is a French film, not Iranian (although there are some Iranian elements). Besides, certain themes from 'A Separation' are absent in 'Le Passé', such as religion and social differences. Other themes, such as the relationship between father and son (and mother and daughter), are more prominent.
I described this film as an emotional roller-coaster, but that doesn't mean it's a 'soft' film, only about feelings. It's just as much a whodunit, where the search for the killer is replaced by the search for the truth. What happened exactly, how did it happen and why? Those are the questions that the audience keeps on asking itself. Spoiler: not all questions are answered - some remain a mystery, for the audience as well as for the protagonists.