CANNES, France - For her work in "The Past," as a divorcing Paris mother caught in a web of deceptions, Berenice Bejo won the best actress award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. The movie opens in Chicago Friday; Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi's previous feature was "A Separation," and this one's nearly as good.
American audiences will know the 37-year-old Bejo, a Buenos Aires-born resident of France, primarily for her vibrant Academy Award-nominated supporting turn as Peppy Miller in "The Artist." "The Past" reveals a different performer entirely. This role was originally earmarked for Marion Cotillard; scheduling conflicts forced her to bail, leaving a ripe dramatic part to other hands.
"I met him at the Oscars, and told him I loved his movie and blah blah blah," Bejo told me in May during the Cannes festival, recalling how she encountered Farhadi two years ago. That night in early 2012 Bejo was in Hollywood on behalf of "The Artist," Farhadi was there with his film "A Separation," also nominated, eventually the winner of the best foreign-language film award. Both were a long way from home.
When Cotillard dropped out of "The Past," Bejo's agent went to work, lobbying for Bejo. Farhadi and Bejo took a meeting. They talked; he asked her if she had any children, she replied yes. (Bejo and her husband, "Artist" writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, have two children, in addition to two children from Hazanavicius' prior relationship.) Farhadi told Bejo virtually nothing of the storyline of "The Past." He did some makeup tests, shot some test footage. Weeks went by, no word. One August day she got the call, and three days later, a two-month rehearsal period began, followed by the four-month shoot for "The Past."
The story is simple in its present-day scenario, intentionally murky in its back story. Bejo's character, a working-class pharmacy employee, is reuniting for a day with her Iranian husband in Paris so they can process their divorce legally in the French courts. Her new life is with a man whose own wife lies in a coma, between death and life. The reasons for the coma patient's suicide attempt explain much of the gray area in "The Past," but as in "A Separation," the ambiguities are rich and in the service of dimensional human conflict.
To Bejo, "the nationality of the characters in Asghar's films doesn't really matter. It's more about how women and men misunderstand each other, and how we don't handle a situation in the same way." I asked if she perceives a pattern in his films, allowing the male characters to be the source of calm, and women the storms. "I see that, yes," she said. "It is the same in 'A Separation.' The women are troubled, but they are the ones who confront."
Nonetheless the fireworks are rarely overt in "The Past." "I had to trust Asghar that when I was doing very little on camera, it was working. An actor should never do too much if the story is well written. When you read in the script that my character, Marie, is sad and tired, the actress does not need to stress this. The images, the way she dresses, the way her hair is done, the way her house is messy, all these things say this. Asghar takes care of all these things."
Bejo's 2013 tour of Cannes duty ended in triumph. With the Oscars two years ago, she said, laughing, she knew she would not win. (Octavia Spencer did, for "The Help.") "For me going to the Oscars, I felt like a bird sitting at a window, watching what was happening inside the house, and then someone opens the window, and you fly in for a while. And then you fly back home. I felt lucky." Her next role is opposite Annette Bening, in Hazanavicius' remake of the 1948 Fred Zinnemann drama "The Search." Her own search for an expansive career is going well.
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