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PARIS — The unexpected arrival of a brother who supposedly perished during World War II upsets the lives of a Jewish tailor and his pretty bride in For a Woman, the latest film from French veteran director Diane Kurys (the biopic Sagan).
Inspired by the director’s own family history, this beautifully crafted historical melodrama goes back and forth between the immediate postwar period and 1980s France, when a young director (Sylvie Testud, from Sagan) tries to write a screenplay inspired by the story of her parents. French stars Nicolas Duvauchelle and Benoit Magimel play Ukrainian-born but France-raised siblings, with Melanie Thierry playing the latter’s young wife, who finds herself inconveniently attracted to her brother-in-law. Woman scored a decent opening locally and should appeal to older audiences looking for quality fare with a French touch abroad.
Despite the title, the film’s main focus is not so much Lena (Thierry) — the fictional alter ego of Kurys’s mother, already played by Nathalie Baye in C’est La Vie and Isabelle Huppert in Entre Nous — as it is on the triangle that develops between Lena, her husband, Michel (Magimel, who earlier incarnated Alfred de Musset in Kurys’s The Children of the Century) and the latter’s brother, Jean (Duvauchelle).
Immediately after the war, newlyweds Michel and Lena move into a home over their fledgling tailor business in Lyon. After the birth of their first child, Jean, someone Michel saw for the last time when the boy was nine and whom they’d assumed hadn’t survived the war, suddenly turns up on their doorstep as an adult man and moves in with them, while a mysterious acquaintance of his, Sacha (Clement Sibony), is never far behind.
A subplot involving a young proto-feminist (Clotilde Hesme) who feels liberated by cheating on her older, staunchly communist husband (Kurys regular Denis Podalydes), seems to foreshadow what will happen to Lena, except that Kurys, who also wrote the screenplay, has something else in mind when she reveals the true reason Lena and Michel got married. Though it’s the stuff of pure melodrama, the director keeps much of this particular plot wisely offscreen, which helps to keep the film artfully restrained, much like the emotions the characters display.
The writer-director also mixes in some effective scenes of suspense and light action involving Jean’s vague background and his business with Sacha. But the more stolid scenes in the 1980s, in which film director Anne (Testud) is putting the puzzle of her parents’ past together, too obviously hint at a big revelation that’s in store, thus reducing them to filler material too early. They also serve up the visually distracting sight of Magimel under so much old-age makeup, he looks like he alternated shooting his old-Michel scenes with a gig as a bad guy in Dick Tracy.
Thierry (Babylon A.D.) is luminous in a complex yet understated role that requires her to gradually reveal how she feels and she’s greatly aided by Eric Perron‘s costumes (a polka-dot dress Lena wears was also worn by Baye and Huppert when they played the character). Duvauchelle, who was already obsessed with Thierry in last year’s Comme des freres, expertly suggests that Jean isn’t all that he seems without, crucially, making him unlovable while Magimel, with his sad blue eyes, is well-cast as a man who wants to move on with life after the war yet keeps running into things directly or indirectly caused by the conflict.
Technically, the film is handsomely put together, from Gilles Henry‘s classy widescreen cinematography to Armand Amar‘s strings-driven score, which helps move the film back and forth between the periods and between tension-filled scenes and emotion-driven melodrama. Production design and exterior work in the Lyon region further complete the package.
Production companies: Alexandre Films, Rise Films, France 3 Cinema, Rhone-Alpes Cinéma, New Light Films?
Cast: Benoit Magimel, Melanie Thierry, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Sylvie Testud, Denis Podalydes, Julie Ferrier, Clotilde Hesme, Clement Sibony
Director-screenwriter: Diane Kurys
Producers: Alexandre Arcady, Diane Kurys
Director of photography: Gilles Henry
Production designer: Maxime Rebiere
Music: Armand Amar
Costume designer: Eric Perron
Editor: Sylvie Gadmer
No rating, 110 minutes
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