Tuesday 1 October 2019

On demand: "Everybody Knows"

Perhaps this was an inevitability. After winning the foreign language film Oscar twice in a decade - for his exceptional work on 2011's A Separation and 2016's The Salesman - the Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has been tempted to expand his horizons (and budget), and to move from the domestic realm to the international. Everybody Knows constitutes a departure of sorts from that remarkable run of films that announced him as one of this century's most accomplished emergent talents. For starters, it relocates him to a small village in Spain alongside heroine Laura (Penelope Cruz), who's returned with her children to her birthplace to attend her sister's wedding, leaving her rich hubby (Ricardo Darin) back in Argentina, where she now lives. (The presence of Cruz and Darin suggests its own seachange: that stars are now lining up to work with the Iranian master.) Farhadi's breakthrough works were tautly self-contained; Everybody Knows has a lot of business to set out. The first act offers a breakneck intro to what seems like everybody in sight: the locals, the guests, and perhaps most crucially of all Laura's childhood sweetheart Paco (Javier Bardem), who comes in off the the surrounding vineyards to serve as the life and soul of the party. We respond as we would to the introductions at an actual wedding: we grab onto the coattails of each conversation, and just hope we can remember people's names going forwards. Then a thunderstorm knocks out the power at the reception, and when the lights come back on, Laura receives notification that her eldest daughter has been kidnapped. The honeymoon, like the champagne, is put very firmly on ice.

What follows is both a continuation of Farhadi's abiding theme - crisis breaking out in the everyday - and a skilful stretching of his canvas. Though Laura and Paco frequently find themselves at the centre of the action, Farhadi's focus is no longer confined to a couple, as it was in Separation and Salesman, but on an entire, fraught community. The kidnapping sends ripples of disquiet through this previously merry group: there are dark mutterings about the vineyard's fruit pickers and who owns this land, while Paco's obsession with resolving the case - which sets him to running around trying to sell his stake in that vineyard in order to make the ransom - leads to his actual wife wondering whether he'd go to anything like the same lengths for her. Farhadi is flirting, I think knowingly, with the basics of genre here: in retrospect, the guests we're introduced to in that busy first act might just start to look like an array of suspects. Yet the film's hushed, naturalistic register - recognisably Farhadian - is geared more towards secrets slipping or being coaxed out in terse conversation, not the sudden revelation or resolution people have started to expect from their thrillers; that's why Everybody Knows runs to two-and-a-quarter hours rather than the conventional 90 or 100 minutes. There is, to put it mildly, a lot to work through and pick over here, and neither the genial detective who drifts in and out of the wedding party nor the Haneke-like study of the wedding video can provide much in the way of easy answers.

That may be why Everybody Knows provoked a mass wrinkling of noses when it opened Cannes last year: it wasn't the shock of the new critics had perhaps been anticipating, but something altogether more considered, even classical in its construction. (If I've read it right, the action takes place over three days that roughly equate to the three acts of screenwriting lore.) Yet that careful construction only flags how Farhadi is one of the few remaining filmmakers to have clung to the kind of serious dramatic complication banished from the cinematic mainstream in recent times (and subsequently rehoused on premium-cable television). Consider, for one, Farhadi's decidedly thorough thematic working-over of the clocktower that overlooks the village. We're there in the first minutes, observing the complex mechanics behind the facade; we learn that Laura's husband has the resources to have paid for the tower's restoration, possibly oblivious to the fact his wife once pledged her love to another man there; the couple's daughter, meanwhile, readjusts the hands of the clock in a portent of the disorder to come. Her kidnapping opens everything up to lengthy, fractious debate, as well as reopening old wounds: it's this community's own Brexit moment, a source of conspiracy theory and seemingly perpetual strife, turning even rational individuals who were once on the same side against one another.

Certain elements are more compelling than others, granted. The Paco-Laura affair may be of greater interest to the characters themselves, to a real-life couple looking to work together, and to moneymen looking to pair two stars in a romance than it is to anybody else; and it's maybe a touch neat that the kidnappers mirror the central love triangle. (Farhadi sees this snafu as a conflict between the village elders and their more impulsive younger selves.) Yet even these agonised sidebars speak to the considerable work Farhadi puts in, both at the script stage - drawing our sympathies across a spectrum of variably flawed humans - and on set with the actors. He crafts an arresting contrast between the initially juiced-up, increasingly dehydrated Bardem and the utterly desiccated Darin, who seems crushed even before the news about his daughter filters back to him; and he gets Cruz to remove her make-up and ditch the Mother Courage roles in which she's become typecast. (One judicious detail, in a film full of them: the solitary fried egg the bereft Laura is seen picking at over breakfast one morning, the surest sign of how the wedding feast has turned bad.) I emerged from Everybody Knows with much the same impression as I had going in: that Farhadi is making some of the best imaginable arguments for a truly adult, fully dimensional cinema such as critics and filmmakers once fought to bring about. In an age when even our better movies are being reduced to memes, maybe that's an unfashionable goal; yet if Farhadi should struggle to find funding or favour - and Everybody Knows' commercial underperformance leads me to wonder whether this westward drift may be a one-off for the time being - all hope for cinema as an art form may be lost.

Everybody Knows is available on DVD through Universal, and to stream via the BFI.

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