Read two critical perspectives on About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, 2009) by Rob Avila and Len Weiler. About Elly opens on May 22, 2015 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and Camera 3 in San Jose. For release dates in other areas, click here.
ABOUT ELLY: Class Dismissed?
by Rob Avila
A weekend getaway by the seaside for a group of close friends, young professionals from Tehran, becomes the occasion for a cozy love fest gone very wrong in Asghar Farhadi’s utterly absorbing 2009 drama, About Elly .
For those who enjoyed the taut and sophisticated family-cum-class drama A Separation—which put the 43-year-old Iranian filmmaker firmly on the international map when it earned the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film—a look at this preceding effort will confirm Farhadi is no slouch when it comes to telling a subtle tale of family fission and social instability. Indeed, it picked up a Silver Bear for Best Director when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.
Thanks to an extraordinary cast, About Elly is fairly riveting from the get-go, even as a harmless, joyful outing among familiars seems to be all that’s going on. We learn that one of the group, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), has invited her daughter’s preschool teacher, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), to join her family and close friends—totaling three couples, three young children, and a divorced bachelor—for a weekend vacation by the seashore.
Sepideh, charming but headstrong, and not above being sneaky if it can smooth the way to her goal, has matchmaking in mind: namely, Elly and their friend Ahmad, the handsome and gentle divorcé visiting from Germany. (As the boyishly charming Ahmad, Shahab Hosseini delivers a performance sharply distinct from the brooding, explosive figure he’ll play later in A Separation ).
Elly, calm and good-natured despite the embarrassing way Sepideh’s friends carry on over Ahmad’s new flame, seems to return his obvious interest. But she is also wary somehow. When she recognizes a number on her ringing mobile, but ignores the call in front of Ahmad, we suspect things are complicated for her. She tries to leave for home the next day, but Sepideh insists on keeping her with them.
But what do they really know about Elly? Not even, it turns out, her last name. When she goes missing in the wake of a panic-inducing accident, the group is confronted with a potentially serious situation. Reporting her missing to the authorities provokes the latter’s disbelief. How could such intimacy exist between people who did not even know each other’s surnames? Not knowing if she is alive or dead, and who is to blame in either case, the group anxiously weighs what to do. Suddenly nothing is very harmonious as guilt, suspicions, resentments and baser natures all come to the surface.
Farhadi carefully measures each shot, each seemingly tossed-off bit of dialogue, in churning the placid surface of middle-class respectability the way, at one point, a BMW spins its back wheels uselessly in the wet sand.
When Elly, shaking off her unspoken dilemma and playing with the children, takes hold of a kite string, Farhadi uses a series of jagged jump cuts in following her down the beach. The scene’s manic joy conveys a giddy, desperate need as well as a fractured persona. We’re left with a hanging shot of the kite hovering in the breeze, serene and alone.
In the title role, Alidoosti—who came to fame in the eponymous I Am Taraneh, 15 (2002)—demonstrates a complete naturalness before the camera. Her easy smile and subtle apprehension make Elly an appealing yet solemn figure.
It would be easy to dwell on each of the fine performances Farhadi relies on here to gently seduce us into his circle of warm, confident urbanites—the better to disturb and appall us when their appealing surfaces so readily corrode in the troubled salt air.
Rob Avila is a freelance arts writer based in San Francisco. He was a contributing arts writer and senior theater critic at the San Francisco Bay Guardian from 2002 to 2015, covering theater, film, contemporary performance, dance and anything really that smacked of a good time. He continues to write on these and other subjects here and there, including for American Theatre and online at Poverty: An Arts Journal.
ABOUT ELLY: Secrets and Lies
by Len Weiler
About Elly , opening in the Bay Area on Friday, May 22, is a new film from the great Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation , 2011; The Past , 2013) … or at least new for us. Completed and released elsewhere in 2009, and even shown at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival that year (winning the Best Narrative Feature award), it got caught in some legal tangles and is just now being distributed in the United States. No matter, it was worth the wait. About Elly is an intriguing, perceptive, captivating movie, a worthy antecedent to writer/director Farhadi’s two subsequent pictures.
In my review of The Past , I noted how that film and A Separation “examine how miscommunication, emotional reticence, and unexamined expectations can lead to misunderstanding, loss of trust, acrimony, and other corroding emotional responses in relationships.” In a different context, the same can be said of About Elly . This film focuses particularly on how the deception of little white lies and hidden truths can corrode relationships and lead to unintended consequences.
A group of Iranian millennials, friends since their university days, arrive at a seaside vacation spot for their annual weekend holiday. They have just driven up from Tehran, three couples, their young children, and recently divorced Ahmed, visiting from Germany where he now lives and works. The ringleader of the group, Sepideh, has also invited a newcomer, her daughter’s kindergarten teacher Elly, to come along in the hope that she will hit it off with Ahmed. Elly was a reluctant recruit, and insists that she can only stay for one night.
There is a bit of a snafu in that the reservation is only for one night, although they were planning to stay for three. Sepideh actually knew this when she made the booking, but figured they could work something out when they got there—and she proceeds to plead with the proprietress to make a special accommodation, asserting that Ahmed and Elly are newlyweds, that this is their honeymoon weekend, and that it would be most unfortunate if they were forced to leave after just one night. The fib works, and the party is offered a somewhat ramshackle beach house large enough to accommodate everyone.
A somewhat embarrassed Ahmed and Elly are teased as the “newlyweds,” amidst the ensuing party atmosphere as the place is cleaned, dinner made and consumed, the children frolic on the beach, there is singing, a game of charades, and so forth. During the course of this opening sequence we begin to get to know and differentiate these attractive folks. They are good people having a good time.
The following day, however, everything changes. A child nearly drowns, and in a thrillingly-shot ocean sequence, is rescued and brought to shore. Before anyone can catch his or her breath, it is discovered that Elly is missing. She had been on the beach and must have swum out herself to save the child. A frantic search ensues on land and at sea, but she is gone, presumed drowned. Or is she?
Yes, there are shades of Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) in this setup. But whereas Antonioni uses this premise of the disappeared woman to explore the alienation and hollowness he saw in western society at the time, Farhadi takes us in a different direction. He’s interested in who these people are; what their responses to this tragedy reveals about them—and by extension, about us. He explores their feelings of guilt, their fears, and the conflicting impulses to blame themselves for what has happened and to find someone else to blame. The characters’ intertwining narratives and explanations quickly shift as new information is revealed. Layers of lies have been told, lies of commission and of omission, perhaps well-intended at first, but ultimately, as they unravel, consequential and revealing. As the dissembling is exposed, trust is undermined, relationships fray, emotions are unleashed, there are recriminations, more lies are told. Sepideh’s husband, Amir, becomes so upset at her machinations that he physically attacks her. At one point the group actually takes a vote on whether or not to be honest with a newcomer. No one is innocent.
On one level, About Elly is a search for the truth about what really happened. It’s a psychological thriller and a mystery. Did Elly drown, or did she just sneak away to go back home as she had said she must? Why wouldn’t she tell anyone? Did we upset her, are we to blame? Or is she ungrateful and inconsiderate, taking off like that? Perhaps she’s just a bad person, in which case we’re not culpable, and whatever happened is her own fault. What do we really know about her? People grasp at hypothetical straws, making up self-serving stories to assuage their own feelings of responsibility and grief.
On another level, the movie seems to be exploring the friction between religion-based traditional values, such as family honor, respect for elders, strict gender roles, modest dress and behavior; and the secular modernism of these characters, their moral relativity, ideas of gender equality, consumerism, western styles of music and dress. Several of the women are heavily made up under their stylish hijabs; they wear modest tunic tops over designer jeans. The men wear shorts or jeans and European-style shirts, which they hasten to strip off for a game of volleyball. These are, of course, the young, the educated, the rising professional class. They don’t exactly want to offend tradition, but they certainly do not feel bound by it. Not unlike their Western counterparts, they just want to have a good time, and if rules need to be bent a little, well….
Farhadi is an actor’s director, and the performance of each member in the ensemble is terrific and wholly believable. They are so comfortable with one another, especially in the scenes before the trouble starts, joking, bantering, playing games. The standout has to be Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh, who convinced Elly to come in the first place, schemed to get her to stay longer than planned, and subsequently experienced the greatest sense of responsibility, guilt and grief after Elly’s disappearance. She is beside herself, and—perhaps for the first time in her life—doesn’t know what she can do to make things right. Farahani is simply exquisite.
There are scenes of sweeping beauty, most particularly one of Elly helping a child get her kite aloft on the beach, then herself coming alive like a child as she succeeds, running back and forth holding the string, looking skyward, laughing, squealing with the simple delight of it. Then there are moments of desolation, as where Sepideh runs behind the house to get away, be alone, so she can just sob.
The story sweeps you along with its layers of complications, one thing leading to another. I long to tell you how it turns out in the end, but why spoil it? Go see for yourself. I can say that the final scenes are sad, haunting and beautifully wrought.
We are left with an apt image: one of the group’s cars is stuck on the beach, and the sea’s relentless waves are encroaching. Members of the party are pushing. The car spins its wheels, trying desperately to extricate itself to no avail, all the while digging itself ever deeper into the mire.
Len Weiler, a film aficionado, has written about movies over the past four years on his blog, Notes on Films. He also has been a San Francisco Bay Area attorney since 1976, specializing in family law.