Cannes 2016: The Salesman review

★★★★☆
Asghar Farhadi is a film director of such consistent quality and control that the prospect of one of his new films is like buying the latest big fat novel by a favourite author. It sits on the shelf with all the complexity of the human universe lying in wait within. Competing for the Palme d'Or, Farhadi's latest, The Salesman, sees the apparently happy and comfortable life of a young couple thrown into turmoil by the blows of fate. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are husband and wife. They are both actors as well, preparing a carefully censored version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman for performance. In fact the very first shots show the set being constructed, an interestingly provocative opening for a director often praised for his neo-realism.

Before we properly meet our protagonists disaster strikes. The building is collapsing, the windows cracking under the strain and the apartment complex has to be evacuated. Fortunately, another member of the acting troupe, Babak (Babak Karimi), owns an empty apartment and can put them up until they find somewhere else, or they can even rent it from him in the long term. The apartment seems fine, though the former tenant has left one locked room packed with her personal belongings. The crisis has been averted and Emad moves through his life with confidence and calm. He is a schoolteacher and his control of his charges, his ease and competence can be seen in the respect and liking that his students have for him. It can also be seen in his acting - he plays Willy Loman and his wife plays Loman's wife Linda - where he is unshowy and collected in his performance. 

However, one evening Rana buzzes up a stranger, thinking it is her husband returned and is attacked while in the shower. The violence is not portrayed and there is an ambiguity to what exactly happened. There are bloody footsteps on the stairs and Rana is hospitalised with a nasty injury, but the question that everyone asks and at the same time avoids is: was she raped? The police are not called and Emad is eager to return to normal. However, Rana is traumatised and unable to continue normally. She wants Emad to take time off and stay with her. The new apartment is now a hell to her because in what should be the safety of her new home she feels only violation. 

Emad himself turns detective as the attacker has left his telephone and some car keys. He searches until he finds the lock that fits the key and all the time his life begins to slowly unravel. The play is disrupted when Rana can no longer perform and Emad becomes uncharacteristically tetchy with his charges at school, confronting one child with an anger that comes from home. 

As the mystery is resolved things can only get worse as now Emad has the opportunity for revenge and the moral ambiguity of vengeance; the toxic cocktail of anger and glee and the original pain are mixed. The performances are as superb as audiences have come to expect, with Farid Sajjadihosseini particularly deserving of praise later on. Throughout the film, mirrors reflect scenes just as the art of the play begins to reflect the failings of real life and vice-versa. This is a rich and complex take on guilt and anger. There is humour in particular when a friend's child comes to stay, but even this moment will be spoiled by the crime, the repercussions of which reverberate throughout the film.

The 69th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 11-22 May 2016. Follow our coverage here.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty

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