For A Woman (Pour un femme)

Say what you will about The French, they understand women. Having said that, I must endeavour to explain it in the context of For A Woman without sounding like a misogynous bastard.

For A Woman takes place shortly after World War II: Michel and Lena are living in their little apartment, happily married Communists, with Michel running a haberdashery and Lena bored and frustrated by her lack of employment (which Michel is rather against) when suddenly Michel’s brother Jean shows up.

After a happy reunion, Jean is…well, opaque. How is it possible that he survived? The family was split up during the war, with Jean being trapped inside a Nazi camp in Russia while the parents were in Germany and Michel was in France. (I think I have that right. Point is: They were split up.)

Jean also seems to have connections. When Michel opens up his own haberdashery, Jean is able to come up with three boxcars full of unused fabric (diverted during the war but then forgotten) for the taking, giving the new business a real boost.

There’s a certain wry humor to the proceedings: Michel’s big fear is that Jean has fled the Soviet Union, which is just too reactionary for Michel’s taste. In fact, Jean is more than happy to knock down Michel’s idealized support for the USSR (as one who putatively escaped it), and Michel is more than happy to dismiss this counter-revolutionary talk.

So, is Jean a Soviet spy or a defector or something else?

I’d like to say that I called it early on and guessed exactly what he was and why he was there, though the film shook my smugness a little bit once or twice. And, in fairness, I figured it out based on feeling like we were supposed to like Jean and none of the obvious solutions made him very likable.

By the way, the movie is bookended by a story taking place in the late ‘80s and into the early ’90s between Michel’s daughters, and at the end of Michel’s life. And he remains unrepentant Communist to the end of his days, enraged by the end of the Soviet Union.

I think this is based on a true story, and of course there are many real people who are like that. (Some of them even on the Internet!)

So, what’s all this about women? Well, Lena and Michel are happy, basically, though Lena less so, both because she has little to do (and housework in post-war Europe was not easy), and while she loves Michel, he’s boring. He’s a businessman. He’s staid. He’s unmysterious. He adores her more than anything but she doesn’t reciprocate, not to the same degree.

Oh, also? He saved her from the concentration camp by pretending she was his fiancee, and literally carrying her across country to save her life.

So, yeah, that might endear you to a guy, huh?

But when Jean shows up, he’s everything Michel is not: Mysterious, dangerous, magnetic, sympathetic, and Lena is mistrustful of him, but definitely attracted. It is to the movie’s credit, and a believable characterization, that she doesn’t just jump into bed with him. At the same time, the attraction between them grows dangerously, threatening Lena and Michel’s life together.

I couldn’t help but note to myself “Dude saved your life. Can you really be unfaithful to him?” But of course the answer is: Sure. When Lena says “I could never cheat on Michel”, her uber-Communist gal-pal who’s cheating on her husband with a much younger stud-of-the-people, says “All women can cheat.”

Actually, as big a mess as said gal-pal is, she also seems to have the best understanding of women, when she says she wants both men, because both men satisfy different needs (implying the same of Lena, and perhaps all women).

Writer/director Diane Kurys is said to have based this story on her own parents’ lives and, secondarily, the effect it had on her life, and (perhaps surprisingly) this is a remarkably gentle and compassionate film. It both indicts her mother for her actions but not harshly so, demonstrating an understanding that nothing in life is that simple.

But if guys are going to take a message away from this, it probably should be: Dude, it doesn’t matter if you save her life, if she’s not into you, she’s not into you.

The Boy and I rather liked it. We weren’t crazy about the framing story, as it seemed to drag the story down a bit, but we could see why it was there.

The principles are fine actors: Benoît Magimel, who looked familiar but I can’t think of anything I’ve seen him in, plays Michel. Nicolas Duvauchelle (The Well-Digger’s Daughter) plays Jean. The regally beautiful Mélanie Thierry (Babylon A.D.) plays Lena.

It’s a little heavy, of course, and sad in places, but it’s not dreary or morbid, and mixes in a fair amount of suspense, mystery, romance and eroticism that makes it a good watch.

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