Moving into family-autobiography terrain after her 2008 biopic “Sagan,” Diane Kurys depicts an episode from her parents’ lives just after World War II in “For a Woman.” This drama of covert political and romantic intrigue has the kind of respectable if slightly soap-operatic historical and narrative juice that’s traditionally been a winning formula for upmarket Gallic cinema. Somewhat pedestrian packaging and one less-than-committed central performance won’t help this fairly engrossing pic achieve the sleeper status of a similar endeavor like Claude Miller’s “A Secret.” Still, prospects remain reasonably solid for multiformat niche biz in various territories, with Film Movement launching U.S. theatrical release May 2 in New York.
A framing device features a dour Sylvie Testud as Kurys’ alter ego, Anne, a veteran filmmaker who joins sister Tania (Julie Ferrier) at their ailing father’s deathbed in 1991, then finds old letters he’d kept, which she reads and turns into a screenplay — becoming in turn the film we’re watching, of course. Those letters reveal much that neither sibling had known about their dad or their likewise recently deceased mother, who had met in an Axis prison camp.
In 1945 Lyon, Michel (Benoit Magimel) is an ardent Community Party member and ex-Foreign Legionniare of Ukrainian Jewish origin who, after the war, struggles to get by running a menswear shop. His wife, Lena (Melanie Thierry, “The Princess of Montpensier”), stays at home upstairs, minding the firstborn of their two daughters. Turning up out of the blue one day is Michel’s long-lost brother, Jean (Nicolas Duvauchelle), unseen since the age of 9. Back then they were separated from their parents, who may have emigrated to America or may have died; certainly the two brothers had assumed each other dead. While Michel wound up serving in the French Army, Jean was in the Red Army, afterward tortuously making his way across ruined Europe to track down his sibling.
While Michel has an idealized vision of a socialist France, Jean has a more cynical view bred by years within the Soviet system. He’s connected in somewhat shady ways, managing to score Michel a bounty of seized German fabric for his materials-starved business, while plotting clandestine political activities with deceptively breezy comrade Sacha (Clement Sibony). It turns out one of those covert operations is hunting down Nazis, collaborators and traitors, doling out justice sometimes via U.S.S.R. expatriation to those who might otherwise escape scot-free to Latin America or elsewhere. As Jean points out, only a tiny percentage of mostly top Axis officers are actually getting prosecuted for war crimes. But such corrective efforts are illegal so far as the French police are concerned, making Jean’s and Sacha’s lives here temporary and furtive.
As Michel grows increasingly alarmed by his brother’s above-the-law righteousness and potential violence, bored Lena is increasingly attracted to Jean, and vice versa. But her conflicted emotions, which seem intended to be the film’s center, instead become its weakest link largely due to Thierry’s overly passive interpretation. Her heroine seems indifferent to children and husband and, despite his concern for her fragility, manifests no tangible signs of trauma from recent prison-camp experience. Her desire for something beyond a domestic life stirs little sympathy because neither thesp nor writer-director supply her with any talent or spirit that presses for expression in the outside world. And the passion both brothers feel toward Lena seems abstract for lack of any such energy reflected back at them. It’s a pretty walk-through of a performance, sapping urgency from a story arc that ought to generate considerably more psychological suspense.
Kurys’ direction doesn’t supply much intensity, either, and the film’s general assembly is just serviceable rather than stylish or atmospheric. Yet “For a Woman” ultimately pulls the viewer through nonetheless, sustained by the screenplay’s page-turning novelistic tenor and strong turns from the male leads.