Asghar Farhadi’s 2009 film About Elly – only released in the U.S. four years after the triumph of Farhadi’s 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner A Separation – was praised for, among other things, its canny self-positioning in relation to the history of European art cinema. Stephen Holden began his New York Times review, for example, by pointing out that if the film’s premise sounds familiar, “it’s because this story of a young woman who disappears during a festive weekend outing at a coastal resort resembles that of Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic L’Avventura.” Another critic sees a Spielberg influence, and wonders, “what do we make of an Iranian film whose conceptual parameters are broad enough to span L’Avventura and Jaws?” I’ll suggest here that Farhadi’s conceptual parameters are even broader, drawing not only on blue-chip cinematic touchstones, but also on a classic of British literature. If About Elly reimagines Antonioni’s film, it also offers – somewhat like Amy Heckerling’s Clueless – a loose retelling of Jane Austen’s great novel Emma. 1
About Elly falls short of the standard of an “adaptation” (even a loose one) of Emma, but it seems clearly modelled on it in a number of important respects, with various characterisations, plotlines, and themes from the novel resourcefully telescoped and reconfigured 2. As the film begins, a group of educated, upper-middle-class young Iranians are driving out of Tehran for a weekend getaway by the Caspian Sea that has been organized by one of the women, Sepideh. The friends are attractive and high-spirited. Even when the house they had rented turns out to be available for only one night – it transpires that Sepideh knew about this ahead of time – they move with good humor to a dilapidated nearby villa that is filthy, and filled with broken glass from missing windows, but is at least pleasantly situated on the beach.
It soon becomes clear that one member of the party is not an old friend but a newcomer to the group. Sepideh has invited along Elly, her young daughter’s attractive kindergarten teacher, in hopes of setting her up with Ahmad, a friend whose marriage to a German woman has recently collapsed. Where the rest of the group are prone to a raucous hilarity born of their long friendship, as well as of their social privilege – they are fundamentally confident of their place in the world – Elly is quiet and reserved. When Elly discovers that in order to convince the owners to let them use the villa, Sepideh has cheekily come up with the story that Elly and Ahmad are newlyweds who can’t be expected to sleep in their car, Elly is visibly uncomfortable with the rental owners’ misplaced congratulations, and with the rest of the party’s insinuating teasing and their obvious manoeuvering to ensure that she is seated next to Ahmad at dinner. “Poor thing, she’s embarrassed,” someone observes, “leave the poor thing alone.” But they do not relent.
Elly is, in effect, a combination of Austen’s Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax. She is like Harriet Smith in her relationship to Sepideh, the arrogant match-maker attempting to forge a relationship between an attractive and seemingly available young woman (whose family she knows nothing about) and a more socially-privileged family friend. But she is even more like Jane Fairfax: a teacher of children with a reserve, and a cautiousness regarding sexuality or romance, that we come to see has been partly shaped by class and status. Sepideh and their friends can afford to make outrageous, racy jokes; Elly does not possess the social capital to make that kind of eroticized humor feel safe or comfortable.
Emma famously contains several scenes of the playing of parlor games that encapsulate the novel’s depiction of social life as game playing, wit, competition, strategy. Emma misinterprets Mr. Elton’s riddle, “courtship,” to refer to Harriet instead of herself, and the riddle Frank Churchill presents to Jane, “blunder,” offers an important clue both to Emma and to the novel’s readers (missed by the former, and probably by most of the latter on a first reading). About Elly matches the novel with its own parlor game, a round of charades in which Elly must play the role of a mother cradling an infant. These parlor games define both Jane and Elly as uncomfortable in a country-home mode of flirtation and game playing designed to serve the interests and the style of those with less to lose.
Another link between the novel and the film can be found in their depiction of mediated communication and the sending of messages. In Emma, Jane’s social isolation and vulnerability are evident in her relationship to letters and to the mail. The regularity of her visits to the post office offers one clue to Emma that Jane may be engaged in a long-distance flirtation. Her commitment to walk several miles to the post office in bad weather puzzles some of her other Highbury companions, to whom she must explain: “You have every body dearest to you always at hand, I, probably, never shall again; and therefore till I have outlived all my affections, a post-office, I think, must always have power to draw me out, in worse weather than to-day.”
Farhadi creates a structural parallel to Jane’s relationship to the mail in Elly’s relationship to her phone. Soon after the party has arrived at the villa, while the rest of the friends are laughing and dancing together in the house, we see Elly trying to place a call. There is no reception, and Farhadi frames her, alone outside with the phone, in such a way to emphasize her isolation from the festive group inside. Sepideh seizes the chance, and convinces Ahmad to take Elly on a grocery run so she can find reception for her phone; in the car, while Ahmad is in the store, she speaks briefly to her mother, and tells her, “if anyone calls, don’t say I’m out of town; just say you don’t know where I am. I’ll be careful.” When Ahmad returns, the phone rings, and she doesn’t answer, commenting, “I know who it is; I’ll call back later.” She is a puzzle, quite a puzzle (as Emma thinks about Jane at one point). In both the novel and the film, the mysteries of character, behavior, and identity often must wait on the delivery of a mediated message, which can hold out the promise of making “many things intelligible and excusable which now are not to be understood.”
At this point, the plot diverges from Emma in dramatic ways. A child nearly drowns, and Elly, who had been in charge of watching the kids on the beach, disappears: presumably drowned in the rough sea trying to save the boy, but just possibly having in fact seized the chance to escape in the uproar. The question has to be considered, it occurs to the other members of the party: could she have simply run off? After all, she had insisted to Sepideh earlier that she had to take a bus back home after just one night, and Sepideh had laughingly made clear that she would not allow her to leave before the weekend was over. (It later emerges that Sepideh had gone so far as to hide Elly’s bag to prevent her from leaving.
And now a bombshell drops that a recognition of the Austen source text would have allowed one to predict: Elly is or was – as Jane Fairfax was – already engaged. The message on her phone was from her fiancé, who now, having received the news that Elly is missing, is on his way. Sepideh, who now must admit that she knew Elly’s status all along, claims that Elly was unhappy in the engagement, that Elly willingly participated in what we can call Sepideh’s charade in hopes of discovering that Ahmad would be worth breaking off her engagement for. But by now we are not at all sure that we can take Sepideh at her word. And given the strict codes governing sexual morality in Iran, especially for those outside the elite professional class, Sepideh’s gamesmanship may have exposed Elly (and the entire party) to serious moral hazard.
Even the scene of possible drowning in the surf, and the question of whether or not a distraught Elly may have fled the scene of the accident, bear traces of Austen’s novel. On a group outing to the grand estate of Mr. Knightley, the Woodhouses’ close family friend, Emma is lingering in a hallway “when Jane Fairfax appeared, coming quickly in from the garden, and with a look of escape.” “Will you be so kind,” she says to Emma, “when I am missed, as to say that I am gone home?—I am going this moment…. I have said nothing about it to any body. It would only be giving trouble and distress.” Emma protests that the walk back to Highbury is too far and unsafe for an unaccompanied woman, and offers to send her father’s servant. But Jane dismisses the concern, speaking with agitation: “for me to be afraid of walking alone!—I, who may so soon have to guard others!”.
We never see the equivalent of this scene in the film, but it is implicit as one hopeful (if disconcerting) possibility: that this attractive young woman “with a look of escape,” harried and pressured, responsible for the care of young children, may have simply fled the social machinations closing around her.
By drawing on an Anglo literary classic as a source text, Farhadi defines his art as at once rooted in the specifics of life in 21st century Iran and as altogether cosmopolitan, a truly world cinema. He also allows us to see that when it comes to implicit codes for behavior for women regarding modesty and propriety, contemporary Iran may offer a more apt stage for a translation of Austen’s work than the current Anglo-American world. But having considered these similarities and parallels between film and book, we might also ask, how does Farhadi’s film differ from Austen’s novel? Beyond the obvious plot divergences, two key differences that are in fact related come to mind. First: while Emma ends as a comedy, with the characters happily matched up with their most appropriate romantic partners, About Elly ends in tragedy. Second: whereas Austen chose to name her book not after its most virtuous, honorable, and relatively powerless female character – that would be a novel called Jane Fairfax – but instead after its most exasperating, self-deluding, and socially-privileged female protagonist, Farhadi shifts focus. We could imagine a film, About Sepideh, that would offer a closer match to Austen’s novel, charting the moral reformation of its privileged protagonist. But the movie Farhadi in fact created, About Elly, goes further than Austen in the narrative attention it is willing to devote to a low-status woman whose social dependence puts her profoundly at risk. And this focus leads the film towards tragedy.
Jane Fairfax felt that she “had always a part to act;” like Jane, Elly is forced to act and to perform, thrown into someone else’s comedy of manners. But the two characters’ fates differ. As someone “who may so soon have to guard others,” Jane felt that she had no right “to be afraid.” We may disagree about whether or not she had the right to be afraid, but ultimately she is not at risk; as an important but clearly secondary character, she is eventually shuffled safely off in order to make room for Emma’s and the novel’s denouement. Elly, however, must swim in more dangerous waters. “Lock the doors,” the woman who manages the villa instructed as the group was moving in; “the seafront is not safe.” But, Farhadi makes clear, it is much more dangerous for some than for others.
- A possible Austen subtext to About Elly has not gone completely unremarked. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Tirdad Derakhshani compared the film’s milieu to “the social reality Jane Austen dissects in her novels,” and commented that Farhadi and Austen’s work “converge.” And the Boston Globe’s Peter Keogh even pointed out that the film’s Sepideh is “like a Persian version of Jane Austen’s Emma, a well-intended busybody obsessed with manipulating people into doing what she thinks is in their best interest.” Neither critic analyzes the convergence beyond these brief remarks, however. ↩
- It is assumed readers will be familiar with Emma (either from the novel itself or its myriad screen adaptations). For those who have yet to experience it, however, a brief synopsis follows: “Handsome, clever, and rich,” and bored by her own life of unchallenged social prominence, Austen’s protagonist Emma Woodhouse looks for entertainment to the lives of those around her, finding “the greatest amusement in the world” in match-making for her inferiors. First she takes on a protégé, Harriet Smith – a girl of uncertain parentage from the local school – and attempts disastrously to match her with Mr. Elton, a wealthy gentleman who, it turns out, is much more interested in Emma herself than in Harriet. As the Harriet scheme is blowing up in Emma’s face, another subplot develops offering a new object for her curiosity. Jane Fairfax is a beautiful and intelligent orphan who has been adopted by a wealthy family and “brought up for educating others; the very few hundred pounds which she inherited from her father making independence impossible.” When Jane comes to Highbury to visit relatives for an extended stay, it’s assumed that Emma and Jane, as close peers, will become fast friends. But what Emma interprets as Jane’s “coldness and reserve” galls Emma, who takes revenge with joking gossip about Jane’s likely illicit dalliance with the husband of the daughter of the family that has raised her. Eventually, all of Emma’s schemes and predictions collapse, as she experiences one of literature’s great moral and epistemological awakenings. She is humiliated and humbled, and must reckon with the consequences of her arrogant interference in the lives of others. ↩