The film opens with married theater actors Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) being forced out of their apartment building after it starts to shake and crack, thanks to a construction project next door. Through a colleague, they manage to find a flat that’s about to be vacated by another woman, Ahoo. But she never shows up to take her stuff away. That puts a strain on Emad and Rana’s own relationship, a situation that becomes dire when Rana is mysteriously assaulted in their new place after letting in a mysterious man whom she thought was Emad.
Horrified, humiliated and shaken, her husband sets out to find the culprit, who in a rush left his cellphone and van behind. All the while, Emad and Rana are performing in a version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman onstage — a seemingly random and unwieldy juxtaposition whose thematic link to the couple’s offstage drama gradually becomes a bit clearer. The play is soon affected by their fraying relationship and recent trauma, but it also seems to affect their reality in turn.
It's tough to do justice to my complicated feelings about Farhadi’s latest without giving away several climactic reveals. So let me put it like this: The director's ability to stage a scene, to build the tensions between his characters until you're bursting with anticipation, remains so potent that I admired the immensity of his skill even as I called bullshit on much of what I was seeing. Farhadi’s mastery of intimate drama, of the glances and slights and minor transgressions that can poison relationships, is predicated on moving the pieces of his narrative puzzle into just the right configuration for maximum conflict. This time, as he manhandles things into place, cracks begin to appear in his artifice.
Now, Farhadi understands forgotten women; About Elly was all about one. And the way his camera settles its gaze on the objects Ahoo left behind — a kid’s bicycle, toys, a variety of elegant shoes and dresses — and the way the neighbors gossip and complain about her makes it clear that he wants her to linger in our consciousness. But by denying Ahoo any real agency or specificity, he has unwittingly generalized her or, rather, reduced her to a symbol that would make any religious conservative proud: the irresponsible "loose" woman who ruins everything for everyone.
It doesn't quite end there, either. The ultimate cause of the assault on Rana appears to turn on the notion that men, even good men, are powerless against their urges when left alone with a woman. That’s an idea worth exploring, perhaps, but here it’s treated more as a narrative convenience, and not a particularly convincing one at that. The Salesman constantly hints at broader issues — a class element is at play here, for instance — most of which are too muddled to have the proper impact. Watching The Salesman, I can’t help but feel that this is the first time Farhadi’s mastery of the particular is undercut by the artificiality with which he’s treated the general. He remains one of the world’s foremost filmmakers, but this time around, his expertise and artistry are undone by phoniness.