About Elly (2009) circles around a group of old university friends in their thirties who go to spend a long weekend together by the Caspian Sea with three young children. Three couples are accompanied by two singles, Ahmad and Elly. While Ahmad has recently returned to Tehran from Germany as his marriage ended, Elly has been invited to join by Sepideh, a mother of one of Elly’s pupils. It becomes clear that Sepideh’s intention is to pair Ahmad and Elly. However, the cheerful beginning of the journey takes a drastic turn when one of the children almost drowns in the sea while being looked after by Elly. The group soon realises that Elly has disappeared after the incident. The endless questioning ensues; did she just leave without a word? Did someone enter the site that was said not to be safe? Or did she drown while trying to rescue the little boy?
Given the unexpected incident and the following shock, About Elly becomes a study of individual human behaviour and group behaviour. As Bradshaw has argued the film bears references to “Michael Haneke’s beady eye for the dynamics and symptoms of group guilt” (2012). As the film has very few locations and the group is confined to a small, unfamiliar and binary space between the land and the sea, this article looks at the treatment of space and place in the film. The key questions it tries to answer are how does the setting affect the story? How does the setting describe the characters? How is the ‘private sphere’ represented in the film?
A dexterous treatment of cinematic space is highly selected and treated in a way to reflect the story. It creates meaning and different associations, and connotes implicit factors such as the characters’ inner life through a skilful mise-en-scène. As Saeed-Vafa notes “the cinematic treatment of a chosen location reveals the filmmaker’s attitude towards it. Camera movement, frame size and compositions, lighting, editing and sound, support hidden aspects of the theme more than conscious structural elements of the story such as dialogue and plot” (2002, p.209). Its role as a conveyor of meaning is not to be downplayed. As Aitken and Zonn have stated space and place “are inextricably integrated with social-cultural and political dynamics, and thus are indispensable to cinematic communication. The way spaces are used and places are portrayed in film reflects prevailing cultural norms, ethical mores, societal structures, and ideologies. Concomitantly, the impact of a film on an audience can mold social, cultural, and environmental experiences” (1994, p.5). In the same way Nichols (1994) has compared film spectators to anthropologists and tourists by them also “entering strange worlds, hearing unfamiliar languages, witnessing unusual styles” (cited in Mottahedeh, 2008, p. 145). Taken that Farhadi’s film as well as his Oscar-winning A Separation (2011) are largely seen and applauded outside Iran, it can be argued that their success also derives from their spatial realism. Indeed, in comparison, the trademark of the Iranian films since the Revolution has been their “disintegration between the fictional and the everyday, between temporal and spatial limits” (Mottahedeh, 2008, p.14). The slow camera that captures the space very realistically makes Farhadi’s films easily relatable to the audience. They also have a certain universalism despite at the same time being very much about Iran. As Farhadi has stated in relation to his A Separation, the fact that the story is set in Iran is not relevant (Heidmann, 2011). In the same way the story of About Elly could be take place anywhere in the world. Farhadi claims that he has no need to make a film about Iran – and consequently he emphasises that no one seeing his films could say that they know what life is like in Iran (Heidmann, 2011). However, for him as a director to place his story in a setting it is essential to be able to feel the place and know it. Farhadi has stated that the secret with the place where the film takes place is that “the more local, the more embedded the story to a specific place is, the more universal is the impact in the end” (Heidmann, 2011; my translation).
The success of Farhadi’s films can also seen as deriving from the social setting they depict. As Jahid argues About Elly shows an often unseen modern face of Iran through its young, educated middle class protagonist who are a relative unknown demographic group to the Western audiences (2012, p.11). While this demographic group is commonly seen in the popular Iranian films, art films that often travel abroad “tend to present the more ‘exotic’ lifestyles of the lower and working class” (Jahid, 2012, p.11). Arguably About Elly shows a different angle to Iranian society by representing well-off middle class young families in comparison to many films by Farhadi’s famous compatriots, most notably by Kiarostami with his rural, pastoral settings. However, these rural settings are sill prevailing, since as Saeed-Vafa has argued outside Iran the location is often one of the most attractive elements for the foreign audiences watching Iranian films. Some films “confirms pre-existing images or fantasies of the place as an exotic land of mystery (ancient mythical Persia) and misery (terrorism and poverty)” (Saeed-Vafa , 2002, pp.200-201). In the same vein Mottahedeh has stated that perhaps the most defining factor of the new Iranian cinema in the West ”is its designation as an industry attached to colour; that is, to the abundant use of colour in representing sweeping landscapes, peasant life and nomadic existence” that are promoted by the national film industry (2006, pp. 183-184). However, Farhadi departs from these despite the film taking place by the idyllic Caspian Sea. The treatment of the space and the characters within it connote sombre, bleak existence and the initial idyll is broken into pieces and exposed in the course of the incidents. Whereas in some films, such as Kiarostami’s Wind will carry us (1999) the landscape seems to mould the main character, in About Elly the landscape and setting describe the characters and the dynamics within the group in a secluded place.
From the first minutes onwards the physical space the characters (temporarily) inhabit becomes a locus of an endless chain of lies that later come into the surface. The group cannot take the villa they originally thought they had rented, one in which they had stayed before and were familiar with and with its forest location. Sepideh, however, knew about this and lied by not telling the rest of the group that the villa was available only for a night, assuming that they would find something. In return, they are offered a villa by the sea because Sepideh lies to the rental lady that Ahmad and Elly are newlyweds and the group is celebrating their marriage. The one offered in return is in a state of mess and partly non-functional and have very few furniture but the group will take it. At the beginning, the characters are not too bothered about the shattered state of the house and start cleaning it. Ahmad and Elly are filmed in a close-up shot as Elly hands broken pieces of glass to Ahmad through a broken window. Manochehr tries to cover a broken windowpane with a transparent plastic bag. Arguably this quest to hide and conceal the shattered state by plastic bags and other means could be seen as reflecting the façade the group tries to keep by lying while driving their own agenda. Consequently, despite its outward bleakness the mise-en-scène is highly elaborated and meaningful. In this way the characters’ relationship to that place changes, from the initial indifference to the mess to the anxiousness of their own symbolical mess and suffocation this setting has created. Therefore, although the house is spacious and luminous with big windows and glass doors, in the course of the story it conveys a sense of claustrophobia and its fragmented nature is emphasized.
In addition to the physical space Farhadi’s composition of characters within it is highly expressive and alludes to the relations evolving between them. At the beginning of the film the characters are mostly filmed together, sharing the same space. The film starts with tightly framed shots of the characters in their cars, on a way to spend the weekend together. They are crammed in, close to one another. They stop for a picnic and share blankets, and are mainly filmed together as a group. This group harmony is even enhanced by the bright overtone of the beginning, for example by fleeting vibrant tents seen from the car windows accompanied by laughter and music, the picnic spot is close to jovial market stands selling colourful souvenirs, the women are wearing colourful headscarves. Even when faced the first setbacks as by being told that the villa in the woods is not available, they are still filmed together as a group. This harmony and coherence continues after arriving to the run down villa, where they are pushed close to one another for example when having a meal or when playing charades, all occupying the same sofa. In the charades game “the goal is to arrive at a shared meaning; but later on in the story words will be used to mislead – to try to generate separated, distinguished understandings of what has happened” (“About Elly“, 2012). Consequently, in the course of the film the characters also separate spatially from each other. After Elly’s disappearance and the ensuing breakage, the characters are filmed mainly separately, either in different rooms or alone in a car. If they are filmed within a same shot there is usually distance between them. This is nicely represented in a shot where the men look at the sea but they are all standing alone, occupying an enormous distance between them. After Elly disappears the characters also sleep mostly alone in different rooms, one in a car and one leaning on a kitchen table. Crucially on their arrival it is proposed that the women sleep together in one room while the men shall occupy the living room. This even further alludes to the initial communal spirit that is later shattered.
In geographical terms the film is set in binaries; between the land and the sea, between an urban metropolis and a rural countryside. Additionally the film juxtaposes open and closed spaces through the open sea versus the closed house with its limited garden that is enclosed by an iron gate. As the enclosed space between the sea and the iron gate becomes too closed, the characters escape to their cars to spend time alone, becoming a hideaway within the constrained space, highlighting the need of privacy that not even the toilet offers. The car becomes a place where secrets that cannot be said aloud in front of everyone are revealed. When together in a car, Sepideh reveals to Ahmad that she knew about Elly’s engagement. In the same way, it is in the car, in a nearby village where Elly can get some privacy and can call someone that she cannot do in front of the others. It is also impossible to connect with the rest of the world in the villa – no mobile phones are heard and consequently the group members have to drive away in order to do so. This way the utilisation of cars also highlights the secluded place the characters occupy. It is interesting that straight after the credits the film starts with shots of people in cars and they are often visible in the exterior shots. The film ends with the group aimlessly trying to retrieve the car from the water. However, the cars’ status as a transitional space becomes delusional. The characters are unable to leave, despite the enticement of the vehicles lurking in the background. In this respect this enclosure between binaries is underlined when the villa becomes like a prison that impedes the characters leaving back home, whether because they feel guilty or because of the social honour that disallow the women from leaving the men alone that would give a wrong impression of both Elly and them to the outsiders. The caged bodies are emphasized by many middle shots and close-up shots of the distressed characters, often alone that do not leave much space for them and thus even highlights the feeling of imprisonment despite the vast land around them.
It is crucial that the events take place in a non-familiar environment. None of the characters occupy this space normally and it is a territory incognito to them. As Saeed-Vafa states Iranian cinema is dominated by exterior and open, public spaces as locations. This owes much to “the cultural notion of privacy” since exterior shots “shy away from exposing personal and private spaces” (2002 , pp. 204-205). Consequently, as Saeed-Vafa continues many Iranian films avoid certain topics in terms of ‘privacy scenes’. These include for example scenes “that involve a female character in a male-female physical relationship or that expose characters in their own private spaces, sharing personal time with the audience” (2002, p.206).
In About Elly the house is rented and as a result we are denied any exact places to familiarise with the characters by preventing any contact with someone’s private physical and material universe. The beginning of the film, the characters travelling in the cars and later guided by a young boy highlights the journey to an unfamiliar territory. We only know that the characters are from Tehran. Additionally this space as a shared group space grants the film a degree of authenticity in terms of the veiling. Since women’s veiling is not necessary at home or even appropriate, but expected within the public sphere and public eyes “the encounter between the film diegesis and its audience in Iranian post-Revolutionary cinema articulates all spaces on screen as effectively public” (Mottahedeh, 2008, pp.11, 99). Consequently this omnipresence of veiling produces “continuity between the spaces on screen and the space of the film’s reception” and this ubiquity of the diegetic space is the fundamental difference post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema has with other cinemas (Mottahedeh, 2008, pp.11, 16). In this way Mottahedeh argues that the act of veiling obstructs realistic representation of private spaces and consequently “Iranian cinema cannot represent urban reality in the way other cinemas can” (Mottahedeh, 2008, p.98). By being a shared space, it seems normal that the group’s women are wearing headscarves even inside the house. And although Farhadi has stated that by watching his film one cannot say to know the Iranian reality, arguably by making the veil legible by this co-presence the group can be seen as representatives of the urban demographic group more than a private, unshared space would show. However, the film constantly highlights the private through other means, for example by showing the characters in the bathroom and noting how “it works but there is no privacy” as its door cannot be locked. The toilet is mentioned various times when the characters first arrive to the villa. Again, when Elly’s secret fiancé Alireza arrives after been contacted by the group about Elly’s disappearance, he wants to go to the bathroom, clearly wanting to be alone. In the same way Sepideh resorts to the bathroom, despite being a place that lacks privacy. In this vein it could be argued that as an emblem of privacy, the toilet refers to the secrecy and to the façade the characters try to keep by lying. As in the villa the toilet offers neither privacy nor consolation, in the same way the characters must expose their secrets and beliefs after Elly’s disappearance. Consequently, drawing on this private, amicable sphere it is interesting that the misery comes from within the domestic, well-off, friendly sphere. This is emphasized by the surrounding metal gate protecting the property seen as unsafe but crucially the desolation the characters go through do not come from outside but from inside the gate through the lies and accusations of the group.
Through these accusations external societal factors start to arise in the ensuing vituperation after Elly’s disappearance. The educated, liberal group members clearly start leaning towards latently existing mores and principles. As Suchsland has written Elly’s disappearance “disintegrates the harmonious puzzle of the beautiful, young Tehran Yuppie-society in the its pieces: through the search the pressure of the tradition, the regime and the rigid moral ideas of these liberal, modern looking families come into the surface “ (Suchsland, 2011;my translation). Burke argues that “[K]ey to the film is Farhadi’s use of Iran’s social norms and religious regulations, especially around unmarried women. He exploits the prevailing social stigma to curtail his characters’ actions and choices, following Elly’s disappearance” (Burke, 2011). As the lying intensifies or the characters are justifying their own actions, it becomes apparent that the film becomes an investigation of self as a member of the group. Therefore it is not a study about Elly as the English title indicates but about all the group members and their interaction in an unfamiliar environment. This is emphasized by hiding the private sphere that does not reveal explicitly any signs of identity of anyone in particular and as a result the characters stay equal. As Burke notes after Elly’s disappearance “guilt, frustration and anger show the group to be less cohesive than originally thought” (2011). Farhadi skilfully masters these thematic aspects through the setting. This way he stands as an example of Saeed-Vafa’s notion earlier quoted in this article that the treatment of the cinematic space reveals more about the hidden aspects of the theme than the more straightforward, for example verbal denotations. The divided and broken spaces arguably allude to the individual, divided opinions and shattered truth. In the same way the characters are often filmed through obstacles that conceal the vision such as volleyball net, many windows and glass doors showing people simultaneously inside and outside, pillars and gates and these arguably point to the secrecy and lying. Additionally these screen obstacles could be seen on a par with a woman whose ”presence without a visual shield – a veil, a curtain, or a wall – interferes with the order of homosociality, the order, namely, that defines public space and with it the cinema” (Mottahedeh, 2008, p.9). In this respect it could be argued that through the obstacles the film highlights how Elly’s disappearance disrupts the order the group has tried to keep and whose unity they have tried to enhance for example by repeating some of their old university slogans. The broken and fragmented spaces and vision, an act of veiling/unveiling , convey the fracture between the traditional and progressive ideologies and morals. It seems that at the villa, away from the urban authoritarian life, the group seems very relaxed, and there is a lot of contact between sexes and they share the same space throughout. Once Elly disappears, however, the characters are questioning Elly’s personality and start even judging her for coming to the trip despite being engaged. Through Elly’s disappearance and how it affect the group dynamics Farhadi brings forth moral, judgemental, religious constraints of these individuals who share not only the same past but now also the same physical space. These constraints are highly materialised through the mise-en-scène and the setting, becoming a metaphor of the lives of the group. The villa gradually becomes a symbolic court room for these old law students where they judge each other while Farhadi keeps a distance by not privileging anyone’s point of view and placing them in a place incognito, devoid of any prevailing mores. Farhadi has stated “in all my films, I have tried to multiply the points of view, rather than imposing my own. To enable the viewer to have different angles of the story” (Burke, 2011).
As this article has argued the composition of the characters and their closeness to each other within the space incognito define the relation between the group members in the course of the film. After the initial group order is shattered by the breakage and disruption in the middle part of the film, in the last third of the film Alireza’s arrival to the villa enables the characters to re-negotiate them as a group again. The characters are filmed together around him in a tight composition, close to one another as at the beginning of the film. As they unanimously albeit reluctantly lie to Alireza this can be seen as restoring the group, to restoring the order. However, this restoration is clearly only temporary. As Ahmad earlier in the film rationalised to Elly why his marriage ended by saying that “A bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness”, one can just imagine how the bitterness is only a beginning when the group members again return to Tehran, to their private spheres.