ABOUT ELLY is about three Tehran couples who rent a seaside villa together for a long weekend getaway. It’s about Sepideh, the dynamic group leader who rallies everyone’s enthusiasm. It’s about Ahmed, their newly divorced friend visiting from Germany. It’s about contemporary Iran, about family, tradition, and truth. In fact, so little of this movie is about the titular Elly, an acquaintance invited along at the last minute to meet Ahmed, that she’s only in the movie for a short time.
When the friends arrive at the sea, it’s apparent that Sepideh has put this weekend together by the skin of her teeth, negotiating for a rental with the property manager when they show up, bounding around with endless enthusiasm for the decrepit seaside house they are assigned, desperate for this trip to be a success. Her friends follow her, some gamely and others more reluctantly – Shohreh, for example, whose young son is along for the vacation, is instantly paranoid about the house’s proximity to an unsupervised beach. But after running some errands and cleaning up the place, followed by an evening of eating, charades, and jokes, everyone is relaxed, and Elly and Ahmed — much to Sepideh’s delight — seem to hit it off.
But the next day Elly is anxious to return home to her mother in Tehran, and Sepideh refuses to take her to the train station, insisting that Elly stay the full weekend. It’s a strange moment, mostly because it’s unclear whether Sepideh is joking and also how close the two women are. Elly defers to her hostess, opting to watch the children on the beach while the men play volleyball around the corner and the other women run into town for some errands. Almost instantly, things go south, and ABOUT ELLY becomes a truly compelling psychological suspense film. Without spoiling anything, suffice it to say that Elly disappears and Sepideh’s weekend is ruined.
The mysterious circumstances of Elly’s departure are such that the remaining characters are obsessed by her. At first, we too are caught up in the mystery. Where did she go? What was her nature? Did anyone really know her? But, like many great storytellers before him, director Asghar Farhadi uses absence to highlight presence; in Elly’s wake, we have the opportunity to look more closely at the remaining characters, particularly Sepideh.
Sepideh’s outspoken bossiness usually endears her to the group, since she’s also the one planning everything and doing most of the work. But in the background, as the leaders in our own friend circles may recognize, she’s built a carefully balanced network of white lies within the group which requires her constant monitoring and management. Though Sepideh may insist that she has her friends’ best interests at heart when attempting a matchmaking scheme or keeping their secrets, or keeping secrets from them — and it’s possible she believes all of that to be true — she in fact much prefers the savory details of their personal lives over any practical information. For example: she invites Elly on vacation to meet – and ideally fall in in love with – Ahmed, but she doesn’t know Elly’s last name.
Sepideh sounds like she might be the power-hungry villain of ABOUT ELLY. Her impulse to collect and monitor information is problematic, and given how things shake out, she’s certainly morally — if not legally — walking a very fine line. But it’s her journey, more than any other, that we follow in ABOUT ELLY. At the start of the film, Sepideh seems like a fun, carefree, exciting person to be around. But as she reveals lie after lie to her ever-stunned friends and husband, Sepideh shrinks and withers, losing her voice and often holding back tears. Sepideh confesses, lies, confesses again; she forces herself into cars and rooms where she is no longer welcome, involved in every plot twist, every decision, even when it pains her. Even in defeat, with all her weaknesses exposed, Sepideh remains the star, demanding attention from her friends and screen time from the film.
Farhadi’s other films, A Separation (2012 winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film) and The Past, both masterpieces of contemporary Iranian cinema, deal more specifically with family and marriage. ABOUT ELLY, which actually predates both of these other films but didn’t get US distribution until this year, focuses instead on the dynamics of the group. But all three confront the complicated nature of truth in relationships, and the various judgment systems — legal, religious, social — by which people are held responsible for the stories they tell. ABOUT ELLY shows the power of a story told by a compelling voice, and is a suspenseful portrayal of what happens when that story falls apart. As it turns out, it can be much more interesting to look at the storyteller than the subjects of her stories.