This is a family drama told in hindsight. Anne (Sylvie Testud) tells the story of her parents Léna (Mélanie Thierry) and Michel (Benoît Magimel) as Russian emigres in post-war Paris especially after Michel’s estranged brother, Jean (Nicholas Duvauchelle) returns.
What’s most intriguing about this film is not just the fact that a daughter is wondering about the origins of her family, specifically what her parents’ life was like before she was born, but the facts that it commingles familial dramas and postwar political intrigue. All too often films that deal with Wold War II in some way see the liberation of Europe as the endgame. Some of the most fascinating European films are postwar, set either during reconstruction or in involved in the politics of a new Europe. This one goes there and furthermore examines some of what happens when you’ve moved past survival and are living with compromises made to move on.
Jean arrives enshrouded in mystery. His return to Michel’s life is sudden and almost unceremonious. There’s always some doubt about his nature or identity, but the conflict ends up being one in family rather than the fact that he’s still a Soviet and comrade, and his brother is a communist expat.
These narrative elements may seem like they’re too different to connect but when family is involved everything connects. With everything connecting there could be a tendency to lose the characters behind the ideas they represent and to muddle through to a conclusion. What this film does is end its commentaries on family and politics in separate scenes. One in a discussion and one in a voice over to close a tale. Each is astutely stated and a perfectly presented synthesis of hypotheses.
The most interesting thing again is that it wanders into gray areas, and fights to explain that gray against characters and a world that insist on black-and-white both in political and familial arenas. When not wanting to lose your characters to your ideas the performances by the actors are crucial.
Thierry compassionately portrays a woman torn between her emotions and duties; Magimel plays a cockeyed-optimistic struggling to hold on to ideals in the face of staggering new realities, and Devauchelle a passionate yet embittered cynic seeking unattainable levels of revenge. Each conveys characters as they are and makes you wonder both about where they came from and where they end up. While this film is an origin story of sorts for its narrator, it resists the flashier sacrificial, survivalist beginnings of the characters maturely realizing that life does goes on, and the future is constantly striven for.
The film keeps apace on both its fronts working with a smooth ease that allows you to settle in and ruminate on this situation without losing your interest or pushing it too quickly. The balance that For a Woman strikes may be imperfect but it’s not an easy one to strike and it holds on well enough to entertain and provoke thought in equal measure.