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Director Asghar Farhadi and cast members Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem during the photo call for their film Everybody Knows at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday.JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER/Reuters

When veterans of the Cannes Film Festival finish their ritual palaver upon greeting one another – When did you get in? How was your flight? Staying at the same Airbnb? When do you go home? – discussion usually turns to two crucial matters: the impending awfulness of the opening film, and the nature of the bag that is handed out to all members of the press, filled with essential schedules and catalogues.

On that first front, Cannes held to tradition this year with an opening film, Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows, that is among the worst of its director’s career. Having won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film twice, for A Separation and The Salesman , dramas about unravelling families set in Tehran, Farhadi went afar – in every sense of that word – to make his latest psychological thriller. Reportedly drawn to the project by Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, who admired his work and especially his sensitive attention to women’s roles, Farhadi shot the film over three months in Torrelaguna, a small town outside of Madrid.

“It is a fantastic location; very fitting for Farhadi,” the film’s producer Elisabet Cabeza has stated. “He is a real aesthete and appreciates its beauty.” That Farhadi squanders this sere, atmospheric setting is just one of the film’s many failings.

The film’s credits play over a close-up of the massive gears of a clock on the town’s church tower, with a telling crack in its old pane. Farhadi began his career as a playwright, and has a penchant for portentous symbolism. The grinding of those gears presages a similar mechanical tedium in the plot, which, in true Farhadi fashion, deals in buried trauma and familial fissures.

Cruz plays Laura, returning to the rural town for a family wedding with her children in tow after living for years in Argentina with her once alcoholic husband (Ricardo Darin). Joy is one of the most difficult things to depict on screen – it frequently comes off forced and false – and, setting the scene for inevitable tragedy, Farhadi directed every single actor, from bit part to major role, to smile relentlessly through the film’s first half-hour to convey boundless communal happiness.

Among the intensely grinning locals is Laura’s old flame Paco (Javier Bardem), a vintner whose wit is revealed when he screams “you scumbag!” at a bird that poops on his jacket. (Paco’s dramatic reaction to learning a rending family secret halfway through the film induced considerably greater hilarity.)

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Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz pose for photos at Cannes on Wednesday.ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/Getty Images

When Laura’s teenage daughter is kidnapped in the midst of the wedding celebration – bringing Farhadi’s tendency for narrative implausibility to the fore – Everybody Knows turns into a lugubrious telenovela, doling out its revelations methodically, one every half-hour. In scene after lethargic scene, shot and edited like television, members of Laura’s clan gather in various crepuscular parlours to solve the mystery of the girl’s disappearance in what frequently plays as an Iberian version of Clue.

As it becomes obvious that the kidnappers had an intimate connection to the family, the household becomes undone by the tragedy, years of banked resentment emerging in accusations of culpability in the crime. At this point Cruz’s performance switches from ceaseless twinkling to an actorly exercise in Eighteen Ways to Weep.

Farhadi exerts intense control over his auteurist signatures: The film returns to the modus of About Elly, his Iranian version of L’Avventura, in which a young woman’s disappearance reveals the nature of those in her circle, and, like The Salesman, portrays a man whose pursuit of justice leaves him utterly bereft at film’s end. But authorial legibility counts for little when a thriller delivers few thrills. Everybody knows.

James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto

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