Helene – or Lena, as she is more often called – is herded into a concentration camp during the Second World War. She endures the dehumanizing experience, until one day during lunch she finds a note in her bread. The man serving beans on the chow line put it there, and his note says that he’s getting released the next day. If he has a wife, she can be released, too; would Lena like to be that wife? She looks across the compound at him. He doesn’t look so bad. Any method out should be seized. She nods.
So begins the odyssey of the central character in Diane Kurys’ new film, Entre Nous. Lena (Isabelle Huppert) goes ahead with the marriage, and walks out into a strange world with a stranger by her side. She grows accustomed to his face, and the marriage holds, as the couple escapes into Italy and then settles in Lyon after the war, where they have two children and a comfortable living.
During this early section Of Entre Nous, we have also seen episodes from the life of Madeleine (Miou-Miou ), a woman whose husband was shot and killed in the streets while in her arms.
When the film jumps to 1952, Lena is a normal housewife, and Madeleine, married again to a shiftless actor, has a young, terminally shy son. The two women bump into each other at a school recital and strike up a friendship. It’s the kind of friendship in which both people know immediately, instinctively, that some special bond has been made.
Their lives soon become dominated by this friendship, and they realize that the men to whom they’re married are becoming less and less crucial. Lena, especially, seems aware of the possibilities within her capable self, for the first time.
If this all sounds like feminist-tract fodder, it’s not intended to. Entre Nous could have been another essay on Woman Oppressed in Man’s World, but it turns out to be nothing of the kind. The people in this film are neither good nor bad. The men are not monsters, and the women are not simplistic. They’re just struggling to find out what their lives mean – or what they should mean.
Kurys is a director with a keen feeling for the details of absolutely average bourgeois life. The rhythm of the movie may appear peculiar: the arresting images of war at the opening give way to gently unfolding observations of family life. But this deliberate storytelling makes Lena’s gradual awakening believable, and it conveys the sense of this woman just drifting – without maliciousness or premeditation – away from her husband.
You can’t always tell in what direction the film is headed from scene to scene, and yet you sense there is a method to it all. The final scene of Entre Nous justifies Kurys’ method; it’s a superb summing-up, as the characters find themselves balanced in a situation fraught with both liberation and heartbreak. It’s tough to make a movie finish on an unresolved note that is nevertheless exactly accurate; and even more difficult to make it emotionally satisfying and stylistically appropriate. Kurys and her gifted cast have done just that, in not just the final scene but all of Entre Nous.
First published in the Herald, March 16, 1984
This movie was a strong arthouse hit at the time. I like Kurys’ early films, and I have no idea what her recent work has been like. The cast includes Guy Marchand, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Patrick Bauchau, and Christine Pascal. I think I know what I was going for in reassuring the reader that this wasn’t one of them women’s lib pictures, but it isn’t exactly eloquently expressed.