About Elly predates Asgar Farhadi’s 2012 Oscar-winning A Separation by three years (it won awards at Berlin and Tribeca), but it hasn’t been released in the U.S. until this year. One thing’s for sure about About Elly. It’s not about Elly.
The Lady Vanishes
Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) is a schoolteacher — unmarried. She is invited to the beach for a weekend by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), the mother of one of her students. Also joining them are Sepideh’s husband, two other couples, some children, and Sepideh’s friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), a divorced young man just back from Germany.
Perhaps the single woman and the divorced man will hit it off.
The first night at the beach house they dine together. They play charades. The men go outside to smoke and the women clean up. The landlady arrives bearing bedding “for the newlywed couple” — meaning the two single guests. Sepideh lied about their marital status. Did she do it to gain the landlady’s sympathy, or was she teasing the potential couple? Maybe a bit of both.
The next day Elly wants to go back to the city like she promised her mother she would. Sepideh really wants her to stay. She cajoles and finally tricks Elly into staying. Elly seems resigned, but too polite to fight Sepideh very hard.
Then while Elly is watching the kids, something traumatic happens. The men playing volleyball on the other side of the house spring into action. There is a long, harrowing scene while the men react to the trauma. Only after this incident is concluded to the adults realize that Elly is now missing.
She might have gone into the sea. Did she drown? Or did she simply leave?
A Bigger Lie
The happy atmosphere grows darker as About Elly slowly follows the remaining adults. Their first focus is rightly concern for their possibly drowned friend. But things quickly begin to unravel.
Most of them focus on rescue efforts. But as the sea gets choppier, finding Elly alive in the water becomes less likely... which many of them take to mean Elly is dead (discounting the notion that she might have simply left). And if Elly is dead, what must they do next, and what sort of trouble could they be in?
Most of them admit they didn’t know Elly all that well: How is it we didn’t know her last name? Who invited her? Sepdieh is always meddling like that. If it weren’t for us, that innocent woman might not be dead.
One more big wrench gets thrown into the works when they manage to reach someone whose number is in Elly’s cell phone, a man claiming to be Elly’s brother.
The adults start showing a strange characteristic symptom: for each crisis springing from Elly’s disappearance, they want to solve it with another lie.
Table for Ten
About Elly is ambitious in its casting. I think there were 8 adults and 3 children, not to mention the landlady and her family. Together they formed a solid, balanced ensemble, with strong personalities such as Sepideh standing out to lead events in one direction or another.
As Sepideh, Farahani is a stylish Iranian beauty, with a few light strands in her dark hair under her scarf. (After Farahani posed nude for a magazine in France, Iran told her not to come back.) Farahani gives Sepideh the strongest personality. She arranged the trip, the lodging, and planned the matchmaking. Her husband Amir (Mani Haghighi) looks the oldest of the group, unless he got his gray hair by losing his temper at Sepideh’s many schemes.
W the group arrives at the landlady’s house, they discover Sepideh was only guaranteed one night, not the three they were all expecting. Sepideh is able to talk the landlady into allowing them to stay at the old beachfront house instead of the cleaner, tidier townhouse. That describers her personality well: even when she knows something might not work out, she will forge ahead, hope for the best, and talk her way around the obstacles when she gets to them.
The group reveals its personality too when they investigate the potential beach house. They count the broken windows, check the boiler, investigate the unlockable doors... then they collectively decide what to do by going around, asking for opinions and ultimately voting on what they should do as a group.
If you wanted to fault the writing or characters you might say that “the rest of the cast” sometimes behave as a mob rather than as individuals. But Iranian films often lend themselves to deeper readings, and I suspect their group mentality is Farhadi’s invitation to consider their behavior as a political or social critique — just like the metaphorical final image of the film, a car hopelessly stuck in spite of the group’s efforts to move it.