“Love yields to circumstance”, wrote Thomas Hardy in Far From the Maddening Crowd. Such a quote is tested to its litmus in Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows. I’ve described Farhadi’s films as moral puzzles for years now and this is the first one since I was introduced to his work where I feel like it would be inadequate, if not a little misleading, to describe it as such. Because while the film is rooted in numerous sociological anxieties that I’ve come to associate with Farhadi’s work, Everybody Knows is the one that registers less as a series of intellectual rejoinders and more a collection of guttural emotions. Ironically, this proves to be Farhadi’s most formally rigorous work since at least A Separation, filled with densely layered compositions and handheld work that bares comparison to John Cassavetes. It’s certainly not what I expected from the filmmaker, particularly one that I thought I had pegged as formally competent if not especially exciting; Everybody Knows stands out as Farhadi’s most interesting film to date.
Set in a small town outside Madrid, the suggested secret of Everybody Knows involves a past romantic relationship between Laura and Paco (Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem). Now separated, the two remain friends, coming together for Laura’s sister’s wedding. From the start, Farhadi subtly suggests the inherent closeness between the two while carefully acknowledging the class struggle that kept, and keeps, them apart. Paco toiling on his farm, handkerchief covering his face from an encroaching dust storm. Yet there’s a closeness between Laura and Paco, where the two meet in their posh European setting, that suggests that Paco operates in both realms: as both the earnest toiler and a member of Laura’s posh family, though his relationship to the latter remains seems detached.
The wedding proceeds, with Farhadi framing the sequence with a buoyant energy that I was not accustomed to from his previous, more erudite, films. It’s reminiscent of the way Luchino Visconti would move between characters in something like Rocco and His Brothers; a fervor of form and composition. These sequences force you to surrender into a peaceful lull, even as particular events – the lights going out, a sudden bout of jetlag, etc. – would indicate something wicked approaching. The suddenness of the film’s “disappearance” can be jolting, with Farhadi’s interludes with melodrama sometimes veering close to histrionics. Thankfully the cast, particularly Cruz and Bardem, modulate what could have been theatrical into something more natural and vivid.
What follows is Farhadi’s rendition of a genre thriller blended with the filmmaker’s preoccupations with wealth and status. Past informs present, as Paco’s fragile relationship with Laura’s family is exposed, where all the inherent resentment of being an outsider to a family is palpably felt. And as is Farhadi’s wont, the filmmaker builds to an eventual revelation regarding Paco and his relationship with Laura and her family that is practically perfunctory by the time the news is spelled out.
If I experienced any disappointment with Everybody Knows, it’s in how matter-of-fact much of the film’s third act happens to be. The ambiguities that emerge from the start suggest something like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Aventura and what we eventually get is explicit and devoid of reinterpretation. Farhadi’s temperament is to never abandon reason, particularly here, can’t help but deflate the exercise a bit. But unlike Farhadi’s previous films, Everybody Knows’ deference of the cerebral for something more emotional provides his performers with a broader canvas to operate within. The result, despite its narrative obviousness and quote unquote predictability, provided me with an agreeable confluence of formal acuity and performances of the highest order.