Exciting Iranian director Asghar Farhadi of Oscar-winning A Separation (2011) returns with French drama The Past (Le passé) that again touches on the remnants of divorce and its effects on the family. Far from being just an intense and deeply emotional experience – as most French relationship dramas tend to be, this one weaves in a crime mystery for added measure and intrigue, if the stroppy teen and even stroppier mother get too much to bare. Co-writer Farhadi still links the story to his homeland, with Iranian actor Ali Mosaffa in a lead role as Iranian national Ahmad.

Ahmad (Mosaffa) returns to the outskirts of Paris, France to finalise divorce proceedings with his turbulent French wife Marie (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) who has not made arrangements for his stay this time as there have been other no-shows. Added to which, Marie asks Ahmad to talk to her estranged teen daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) who she can no longer communicate with to find out why she stays away from home.

With no option but to stay in the family house, Ahmad finds he’s sharing it with Marie’s new husband-to-be, Samir (Tahar Rahim) whose wife is in hospital in a coma after a suicide attempt, and Samir’s troubled young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis) who distrusts the visiting stranger but soon grows fond of him as he pays him attention.

While uncovering Lucie’s problem, it’s soon apparent that Samir’s wife’s suicide might be the result of her discovering the affair between Marie and Samir via email, supposedly instigated by Lucie. Ahmad feels he needs to get to the bottom of things, if only to spend one last time with his outgoing family and for the fragile peace of mind of his former wife and her children he once called his own.

Farhadi creates a claustrophobic space that bristles with life and full-frontal emotions, highly explosive at any one second. The family home is both the battleground and the retreat, with Ahmad sent like some guardian angel character to keep the peace. Mosaffa is an enigmatic and authoritative presence on screen, a mixture of kindness and aloofness in the role, but a complete opposite to Bejo’s emotional wreck Marie.

Bejo shakes with raw anger, hurt and frustration as Marie, a woman under fire from all angles and constantly putting up defences that slowly crumble as she realises how affecting Ahmad still is. Bejo is simply magnificent here, once again, in a standout performance of her own. With Samir in the equation, Farhadi creates a gladiatorial space in the kitchen to pit Samir against Ahmad in the clash of the male egos. It’s intoxicating stuff, and there is a standoff moment that is brilliantly acted when Samir believes Ahmad is undermining him in front of his son.

The suicide-mystery part takes the story along a different trajectory, but it’s key to this vulnerable family’s happiness. It’s expertly woven into the family’s healing process, so as a sub-plot, becomes integral, showing some astute writing. The end shot is a breathe-stopping moment that has the credits rolling over it, but the beady-eyed among us will notice signs beforehand that will answer many questions.

Farhadi’s all-consuming and cerebral emotional drama puzzle The Past could be another awards contender, with a scriptwriting prowess matched by an exceptional cast under talented direction.