The 2009 psychological thriller About Elly, directed by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, puts the unheard voices of the suffocated Iranian middle-class at its forefront. Taking place over a weekend during which a group of young professional Iranian friends get together for a weekend getaway at a beach house. The three couples, Sepideh and her husband Amir, along with their daughter; Shohreh and her husband Peyman, who also have two young children; and Nazy along with her husband Manuchehr. The thickening agent to the seemingly thin plot is added when we learn that Sepideh has invited her daughter’s kindergarten teacher Elly, in hopes to introduce her to her recently divorced friend Ahmad, who is visiting from Germany. No one seems to know too much about Elly, including Sepideh herself, who we find out may know more than she’s letting on. When Elly suddenly disappears while at the beach house, the relationships these close friends have with each other get’s tested and suspicions arise.
As an American that is very much used to the typical American psychological thriller, About Elly outclassed my expectations time and time again. And when I say this I don’t mean my expectations of storyline, or acting, or visual quality, but rather, my expecations of what exactly makes a “psychological thriller”. I found myself waiting for something to jump out of the bushes, or for the suspicious character from earlier to come back and reinforce my distrust, or for the eerie music to play to foreshadow the coming shock to be witnessed on screen. However, none of that happened. There is never, at any point, non-diegetic music in the film. In fact I didn’t realize just how much I look to music in a film to tell me how I should feel until, throughout my viewing of About Elly, I didn’t know how to feel. That perpetual silence made me more uneasy than the most eerie of scores could have. Every sound, from a cup being placed on a counter, to a door being slammed, is crisp and seems meaningful; not to mention that the constant waves hitting the shore outside of the beach house is at first therapeutic background noise signaling the arrival of the long-awaited beach weekend, but soon becomes menacing in its consistence and possible foreshadow of Elly’s fate.
I typically decide what I’m going to watch, or read, by Filmmaker or Writer. For some reason I’m more compelled by the artist than their work, and it just so happens that the best way to learn about the artist is through their art. After watching About Elly, I have the irresistible urge to binge all of Asghar Farhadi’s films. At some point, in about the middle of the film, it hit me that I was watching a Director of great subtleties. Human interactions and behavior are explored deeply in this film. As each character thinks about their brief experiences with Elly they question everything, from the tone of their voice, to maybe an innapropriate gesture, in an attempt to discover what could have possibly gone wrong and where Elly could be. Farhadi’s characters are full of depth, and while the story is captivating, it is so because it serves as a sort of case study into human behavior. Farhadi clearly has something to say about, and is interested in, the way we interact with each other – especially in relationships.
I do admit that, while I do wish this film was for everyone, it’s probably not. I would love it if About Elly was a film that could make its bread and butter at American box offices but it will require too much effort for a lot of viewers, and for some, the payoff won’t be great enough. That saddens me because Asghar Farhadi is a Filmmaker that deserves more spotlight and About Elly is a film that needs to be watched en masse.