Scary season is upon us, that time of the year when people enjoy being spooked by their favorite movies. Personally, this time around I decided to revisit a film that stopped me in my tracks after first viewing it. It gave me chills despite being a regular drama about regular people.
Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly from 2009 is a film that sneaks up on you that way: a story about friends spending the weekend together out by the seaside that eventually turns into a nightmare. Its strengths as a ‘horror’ movie do not lie in the supernatural, but in the mundanity and truthfulness of the characters. It’s a film that on paper seems impossible to pull off: the entire concept and set-up revolve around the accuracy with which the filmmaker is able to capture the nuances of human nature in the face of a horrible tragedy. If that isn’t horror, folks, then I don’t know what is.
The film opens with our protagonists – a group of friends from Tehran – driving through a tunnel on their way to the seaside. They scream at the top of their lungs, happy to be alive, happy to be getting away from the traffic, the noise and responsibilities of life in a big city. Cars honk at them, but they don’t pay any mind to it. They’re enjoying the moment.
Our main protagonist, Sepideh (a terrific Golshifteh Farahani, who would go on to play one of my all time favorite supporting characters in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson) is the one who has organized the weekend getaway. She also decided to bring on board a handsome friend visiting from Germany, Ahmad, and her daughter’s school teacher, Elly. The plan is to introduce them to each other and see if Elly would like to marry Ahmad who may be looking for a wife after his first divorce. Once they get to their destination, however, the unexpected happens and Elly disappears without a trace.
After my second viewing, I admired more than ever Farhadi’s patience in telling this story. The Iranian writer-director’s trademark is, after all, the careful observation of ordinary stories in day-to-day lives, most notably in A Separation which recounts in detail the intricate procedures behind a family’s break-up in modern-day Iran. Yet, About Elly is perhaps even more impressive under this aspect as the film does not tackle in depth the societal landscape which the characters populate: it tackles the characters themselves. About Elly is about the characters around Elly, and how following her disappearance, they begin to reconstruct and project notions, judgments and opinions about her and about each other.
In the film, Elly disappears after being entrusted with the supervision of the families’ kids who are busy splashing about in the sea. Her disappearance is sudden, silent, perfectly anti-climatic. The only thing we know is that one of the kids almost drowned and Elly had probably tried to save him from the strong currents. Whether she really did or not, and whether she really drowned or not, the film’s characters cannot decide. That’s when Farhadi’s nuanced exploration of human nature begins: our characters feel compelled to try and make sense of Elly’s disappearance.
First, they point fingers at Elly. Because Elly, at the end of the day, was a guest. She was Sepideh’s acquaintance, nothing more than a school teacher – a kind person, yes, but a stranger nonetheless. For crying out loud, when the police arrive and ask about her details, they can’t even provide them with her full name! To them Elly is just… Elly, quiet, charming, perhaps a bit too timid. A school teacher, that’s all.
Human nature is a scary beast, argues Farhadi. Moments ago we saw friends enjoying dinner together and playing charades. At times they even kidded about Ahmad and Elly possibly becoming husband and wife. Now we see a group of individuals desperately trying to make sense of a tragedy. Their first instinct tells them that perhaps Elly was hiding something. She had motives unknown to them. Perhaps she really did leave the kids unsupervised, and returned to Tehran on foot, without taking any personal items with her.
Their initial attempts at reconstructing a scenario that fits their notions and ideas about what kind of person Elly really was are pathetic. Each attempt disintegrates within seconds: Elly’s bag, for example, seems to be missing at first only for Sepideh to admit to everyone that she hid it so that Elly would not leave. But perhaps, they ask themselves, Elly was crazy and stubborn enough to leave without the bag? Was she that way? Sepideh, Elly’s only real ‘friend’ on this occasion, doesn’t have any answers. She was just a school teacher, an acquaintance, that’s all.
After trying to make sense of who Elly was and what she might have done instead of simply drowning in the strong currents of the sea, the characters begin to question themselves and their own role in Elly’s disappearance. Was it something we said, or did?
Fingers begin to point at each other. They carefully retrace the sequence of events of the day before the disappearance and try pinpoint the moment Elly might have felt hurt enough by a remark or anything at all to decide to leave unbeknownst to anyone. This process is, in a way, Farhadi’s vision of horror, as friends begin to disintegrate each other with accusations and lies.
Sepideh finds herself in the center of it: the accusations, led by her own husband, point to Sepideh being the architect of this nightmare scenario. She was the one who planned the getaway, who decided to take a chance and rent an abandoned villa right by the sea despite warnings of violent currents. She was the one who came up with the idea of introducing Elly to Ahmad. She was the one who forced Elly to stay against her will. She was the one.
In Farhadi’s cinema, the build-up to these moments is just as important as their culmination. Very often his drama resembles police procedurals, with each step being carefully planned and traced back to the preceding one. The journey is, in fact, much more insightful and telling about the nature of the characters than the final destination.
About Elly never falls into the trap of over-emphasizing the drama of the story. Characters react the way normal people would. They panic, yes, but they also think of their role in the tragedy and desperately try to wipe their hands clean, as clean as possible. In the end, only Sepideh has the faintest idea of who Elly was. And perhaps, not even she does.
Farhadi’s characters are people with back stories to which we have very little access to. About Elly is a film about anything but Elly. It’s about characters projecting their own ideas onto a person they barely knew. Farhadi skillfully finds the drama in the idea of reconstructing a person’s identity without the proper tools in the face of an unexplainable tragedy. Tragedy in the mundane is the most terrifying and this movie confirms this, raising the essential questions of how well do we know somebody? How can I trust this person? How can I love this person? Where did I go wrong? How would I react if you were Sepideh? These are all questions that come to mind when watching About Elly – a film without ghosts, jump scares and horrifying prophecies, yet a film that is still capable of scaring the viewer by posing real, hard questions. Questions we hope we may never have to answer.