The Arty Semite

For Some Characters, Communism Is Never Over

By Allen Ellenzweig

  • Print
  • Share Share

A tale of adult children discovering the romantic mysteries of their parents’ past hardly presents new thematic territory. These discoveries are made after death thanks to the documentary evidence a parent leaves behind: letters, photographs, school reports, and war-related transcripts. Don’t a son and daughter in a sleepy farming community discover their mother’s hot and heavy affair with a passing photographer in “Bridges of Madison County”?

But this snooping around into the past has the benefit of additional historical weight in the hands of Diane Kurys, whose “For a Woman,” a fictionalized family memoir screening January 19 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, traces her Ukrainian Jewish parents’ early marriage after the war as they establish themselves as new French citizens in the city of Lyon. The narrative conceit of the film has two daughters in 1980 rummaging through their recently deceased mother’s effects, the younger one — a stand-in for Kurys — taking on the task of resolving the enigma of their parents’ long-ago divorce.

Suddenly, it is 1947. Michel and Léna set up house in the apartment above the tailoring shop Michel establishes, when the sudden reappearance of Jean, the younger brother Michel has been separated from since the boy’s youth, sets in motion a personal drama with political dimensions.

Older brother Michel is an unreconstructed Communist, attending party meetings and toeing the party line. Handsome Jean is invited to stay in the apartment, yet his taciturnity and helpful-if-hidden connections cast this new border in a suspicious light. Despite some bewilderment as to Jean’s real identity — might he merely be faking this one? — neither Michel nor Léna can believe themselves duped. All the same, their new relation seems to be up to something — and the audience has the benefit of a scene between Jean and his buddy Sacha which confirms that some sort of plot is afoot. Is Jean merely involved in the black market, is he spying on his brother’s Communist circle, is he involved in some kind of politically-motivated revenge murder — and on which side of the political spectrum does he play his part?

Complicating this feeling of Jean’s hidden loyalties is the evidence that his simmering attraction to his sister-in-law Léna may yet involve him in a disloyalty as damning as any partisan or criminal conspiracy. And Léna’s shifting sympathies, between her male chauvinist husband and his romantically mysterious younger brother, force viewers into their own quandary: To whom do we throw our support? Can characters who follow their hearts and not their heads, and in the process lose their moral balance, nevertheless command our empathy?

The narrative turns back to the 1980 “present,” with the two adult daughters now also involved in caring for their aging father, Michel, whose memories of his beloved Léna have not dimmed — and whose commitment to Communism is as strong, if also as reflexive, as ever. Michel has become something of a cliché — the left-wing revolutionary lion in old age, unable to accept that the Party is, indeed, over — or certainly on its last legs.

As director and writer, Kurys has put together a well constructed inquiry into one refugee Jewish family’s past in a post-war France that she paints with, perhaps, rather too rose-colored a brush. And if the particularly Jewish elements of the story are handled briskly, they are not so neglected as to make this a whitewash. “For a Woman” might have been a deeper examination of Jean and Sacha’s particular post-war actions. It might also have attempted a more trenchant examination of a marriage based as much on gratitude as on the wish for starting over in the aftermath of surviving a genocidal war.

For all that, Kurys has shot a beautifully mounted production, with a fine cast of emerging French stars. Benoit Magimel as the rough and tumble Michel, Mélanie Thierry as the beautiful but conflicted Léna, and Nicolas Duvauchelle as the passionate, committed, and silently smitten Jean anchor a story that might have played as mere soap opera. Magimel is especially strong as the only one of the three who must age into scenes more than 30 years later than the main action of the film. He lends grace and sympathy to a man whose sense of manliness is tied up both with his blind commitment to the Communist cause and to the woman, now just dead, whose beauty and vulnerability stole his heart decades ago.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: New York Jewish Film Festival, For a Woman, Film, Diane Kurys

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.