Review: For a Woman (Kurys, 2013) – SVJFF 2014

Still from the movie For a Woman

For a Woman (French: Pour une femme) was the last film we caught at this year’s Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, which is now over (but put it on your calendars for next year!). It is director Diane Kurys‘s exploration of her origins, a quest to unravel the mystery around her conception and her parents’ complicated love, and to imagine their untold story. Indeed, knowing these facts about her past, it would have been too difficult for a filmmaker not to exploit this material: Diane’s Uncle Jean, who had escaped from the Soviet Union, stayed with her family for roughly a year before she was born. Diane always remembered her father referring to this uncle, his long lost brother, with bitterness and contempt. Then, on her deathbed, her mother revealed that when Diane was born her father didn’t want to talk to or touch her. From these pieces of her autobiography, Kurys weaves a luscious tale of illicit romance and political intrigue.

For a Woman begins with Kurys’s film alter ego Anne (Sylvie Testud) embarking on an investigation of her parents’ lives during the years preceding her birth. In post-World War II Lyon, Anne’s father Michel (Benoît Magimel looking like a young Robert De Niro), an immigrant from Ukraine and an ardent Communist, owns a small tailoring shop. His lovely but bored young wife Léna (Mélanie Thierry) cooks, cleans, and cares for their child (Anne’s older sister). Their relationship as Anne imagines it seems almost idyllic, moments of serenity pocked here and there with a brief argument, summer storms that quickly revert to sunshine. It is a marriage that seems typical of that time: Michel is at turns bullying toward and worshipful of his exquisite but apolitical wife. Does he find Léna frustratingly frivolous? If so, he is irritated but also indulgent. It is clear he loves her desperately, vulnerably.

One day his attractive (much) younger brother Jean (Nicolas Duvauchelle) shows up quite literally on his doorstep. Michel had previously believed that his whole family had perished in the war, so Jean’s arrival is both a surprise and a joy to Michel, who welcomes Jean warmly into his home. From the beginning, the audience senses that there is more to Jean’s presence in Lyon than a simple family visit. Meanwhile, the sexual tension mounting between Léna and Jean threatens to detonate Michel’s marital bliss, as well as Jean’s secret mission.

It is tempting to imagine our parents’ lives, our own personal histories, as romantic and meaningful. Add to that the dramatic backdrop of World War II and it seems almost impossible to escape the Hollywoodification of the past. So, yes, Kurys’s creation has a very cinematic, a very glamorized feel, down to the gorgeous cast of characters who you will realize, if you stay and watch the credits, do not at all resemble her parents or uncle. As a result, even while I felt swept away by the seductive, familiar plot, part of me held back, uncomfortably aware of the falseness of Kurys’s indulgence.

When disentangling the fact from the fiction in preparation for writing this review, I discovered that all the compelling elements of the storyline were true and all the fluff was imagined. Still, there is one perfect moment in the film, which is completely carried by Benoît Magimel, where something real does come to the surface. It is not a fact but an intuition, an emotive truth. Kurys’s desire to make a film “from my father’s side” is redeemed by this moment: it is what makes For a Woman worth watching. Alas, under more careful, thoughtful direction, there could have been many more of these moments, but then it is not altogether bad to indulge one’s fantasies now and then–as long as you realize that’s what you’re doing.