Review: For a Woman

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.


Review- The Round Up (La Rafle)

The Round Up (La Rafle) (Gaumont)

Any film that deals with World War II, more specifically the holocaust, fights an uphill battle. The film has to contend with not only the knowledge that we as a viewing public share but also with the inevitable outcome its story-lines share. These factors make any newly told tale, especially ones that may have been shared before, more daunting to tell than they have been in the past, however, what The Round Up (Le Rafle) does so well is tell a multi-faceted tale that most films that illustrate historic events tend to avoid. This film not only tells the tale of a single neighborhood, more specifically the Weismann and Zygler families, but also takes a look at the political sides of the equation (the ivory tower and backroom bargaining where lives were bartered and certain agreements were reached under a false sense of humanitarianism) which many films tend to avoid. Not only does that angle of the story get played but also as those rounded up start their unjustly imposed sojourn you also have the plight of the medical staff, illustrated by a nurse (Mélanie Laurent) and a Jewish doctor (Jean Reno) who have to try an keep the imprisoned alive as they are eventually transported to Poland. It is adding these layers to the story which makes this film different than other of the like at least on the surface.

The differentiation does not lie solely on the surface, however, while this film does not ever take place in an unoccupied France until its denouement it does start in a time where knowledge of what’s truly happening is scarce and children remain children as they are wont to do regardless of circumstance. You are shown very good illustrations of the sense that permeates the community of “It Can’t Happen to Us” and it’s tackled head on later as the eldest of the Weismann daughters tries to warn everyone a few times and wants to flee but calm is urged by her parents. Later at the first stop it is poignantly touched upon again. It’s one of the many times wherein the senselessness and unimaginable insanity of what the holocaust was is very well illustrated. Many of the characters in the film are in the dark willfully or honestly and it allows scenes we’ve viewed and facts we know to wash over us with newfound impact.

Some of these points are made with very cleverly written dialogue as well that is uttered by the right characters in the right moments and in the right context. Things being too on the head are a matter of context as much as anything else and the correct personages say the correct things to make points anew in a different way or ones that are often overlooked. The children, the nurse in her naïveté, Hitler amongst his inner circle and French heads of state all say things that were they assigned to other characters may strike you as too much commentary. Part of why auteur theory is not a popular notion in cinema anymore is that voice in a script as opposed to things like composition and genre can border preachiness but this one deals in the political and personal of a difficult subject matter makes its points about the absurdity of the situation in terse pieces of dialogue, visuals wherever possible but never to the detriment of the narrative, which helps it excel.

Conversely, when it speaks more loudly for the film not to say a word, when an honest question is better left unanswered, where a glare from an officer says more than words possibly could the film does so. The film visually puts pieces in place to set up the ending without dialogue, so as precise and purposeful as it is at some points it understands the necessity of silence also. There is also no fear in illustrating complexity in character without going overboard and simplicity in others without creating characters. The complexity is shown mostly with the families we know who start with different levels of understanding of circumstance and gradually though they don’t know exactly what lies ahead the gravity of the situation becomes exceedingly obvious, yet you also see them grasp for humanity whenever possible. The second part of that statement being most important because there isn’t an excessive myopia in this film as exhibited in something like Life is Beautiful. It creates moments where the human spirit can overcome but also illustrates the length to which human beings will go to be cruel and to be free.

As you can see by now this film us most definitely an ensemble work a few actors come to the fore as vital but it relies on many to convey its story as well as it does. In the family the patriarch and matriarch played by Gad Elmaleh and Sylvie Testud; the medical personnel played by the world renowned Jean Reno and Mélanie Laurent who many will know and love from Inglourious Basterds and The Beginners; the kids spearheaded by Hugo Leverdez in a most impressive debut, The Di Concerto twins as Nono and Adèle Exarchopoulos and lastly the political contingencies highlighted by Udo Schenk as Adolf Hitler each of these nuclei brings the film vividly to life and fully realizes their characters.

In the early stages the intercutting between these disparate worlds is at its apex but it stays rather persistent through the course of the narrative. There are great cuts aesthetically and with story in mind we never see more of the political discussions than we need to in them we are shown the steps than lead to the decisions ultimately made and clearly how things came about.

Where this film really gets to me is at its conclusion but it is effective throughout and evokes different emotions and remains compelling in spite of the aforementioned stumbling blocks the story has. It is a brilliant work that illustrates through its many facets the precipitous escalation of events in Occupied France and the lives it affected.