Entre Nous

January 28, 2020

entrenousHelene – 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.


The Bedroom Window

February 11, 2013

bedroomwindowI’m sitting there watching The Bedroom Window, and distracted enough to play a movie mind game: Who are the two actors, in all of world cinema, least likely to show up in the same film frame?

My nominations: Steve Guttenberg, lightweight star of the Police Academy movies and Cocoon, and Isabelle Huppert, the sultry actress who has graced scores of French films, including Violette and Sincerely Charlotte. Two such divergent styles are inconceivable together; Guttenberg’s shallow knockabout play couldn’t possibly strike sparks against Huppert’s flinty Gallic edge.

These two share centerstage in The Bedroom Window, and, in fact, their chemistry is non-existent. Their inability to interact turns out to be characteristic of the film as a whole. While it’s based on a good thriller idea, the movie flounces around desperately in search of a style.

The writer-director, Curtis Hanson, knows he has a pretty good setup, and he wrings a certain amount of juice from it. But he can’t find his own consistent voice, so he reaches for a variety of quotes from the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitch might have liked this basic situation: A guy (Guttenberg) is messing around with his boss’s wife (Huppert) at Guttenberg’s apartment one night after a party. She hears a noise in the middle of the night, goes to the window, and sees a woman (Elizabeth McGovern) being attacked on the street. She also gets a clear view of the attacker, a pale, red-headed fellow who looks a little like Howdy Doody—who immediately sprints away when he know he’s been spotted. Guttenberg, arriving at the window too late, doesn’t see the man.

The thug is a suspected murderer, so Guttenberg feels they should go to the police and try to identify the culprit; but Huppert doesn’t want to expose the infidelity, so Guttenberg decides to pretend he was the one who saw the attacker, borrowing Huppert’s description.

In such a situation, it is inevitable that the deceit will come unraveled. Here, it happens when Guttenberg is confronted by a police lineup. Naturally, he can’t make a positive identification; but afterward, he follows the most suspicious of the suspects on his own, and gathers his own evidence. His weird behavior leads the cops to wonder whether Guttenberg might be involved as more than just a witness.

Not bad, but Hanson has trouble even with the early expositional scenes. The actors are out of sync, the camera often feels misplaced, and the red herrings are feebly scattered. (Hanson’s sole innovative directorial stroke is making Baltimore an atmospheric, scenic setting.)

There’s one scene that really comes alive: the trial in which Guttenberg gives the testimony. He’s grilled by a defense attorney, played by playwright Wallace Shawn (of My Dinner with Andre), who brings so much sauce and wit to his brief role that it only reinforces how lame the film has been thus far. Perhaps this was the sort of offbeat casting Hanson had in mind when he chose his leads, although Guttenberg is out of his depth and Huppert acts as though she has learned her English phonetically. Together, they have all the compatibility of creatures from different species, which is about what the film deserves.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

Hanson, a great cineaste, would get to Bad Influence in 1990, an upgrade in almost every way, and of course go on to do excellent work in L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. I stand by my assertion here: the Guttenberg-Huppert liaison remains my weirdest screen couple.


Cactus

May 23, 2012

Of all the fine filmmakers who came out of the Australian film boom of the last decade, Paul Cox is perhaps the slowest starter. To prove it, he’s still making films Down Under while his fellow directors have long since found lucrative work in Hollywood.

Slow starters have a way of overtaking their competitors, of course, and Cox may yet be remembered as the prickliest and most striking of all Australian filmmakers. His previous films have included a harrowing divorce story, My First Wife, as well as the perversely touching Man of Flowers. His latest, Cactus, is another intriguing drama, full of dreamlike images and dark glimpses of human nature.

Isabelle Huppert plays a woman vacationing in Australia who has a bad car accident. A sliver of glass penetrates her left eye, which is rendered sightless, and the body’s sympathetic defense systems start destroying her unhurt right eye, too. She must have the left eye removed, or she will go completely blind.

She stalls her decision. During this time, she meets a blind man (Robert Menzies) and falls in love with him, although she has a husband in France.

The film’s conventional plausibility is taxed by Huppert’s decision. It’s hard to imagine anyone toying with the idea of losing her sight rather than having an eye removed. But if you buy the premise, the film yields rewards.

Cox and Huppert make the sweltering atmosphere of this Eden fairly mesmerizing. Huppert is staying with friends who live in a house just on the edge of civilization, with tangled jungle all around; the conversations are punctuated with exotic bird cries.

There are many haunting moments, such as Menzies’ single memory of vision: Blind from birth, he struck his head in a fall when he was a child, and swears he was able to see for a few seconds after. (Cox illustrates the moment with a montage of grainy 8 mm. film.) The idea of different kinds of sight is played with throughout the film; Huppert, her vision failing, says, “The accident has helped me see.”

Cactus is more difficult and obscure than Cox’s other films so far, but it’s much more interesting than most other movies around. When it comes right down to it, this fellow doesn’t make movies quite like anyone else, and that’s an increasingly rare kind of praise.

First published in the Herald, April 1987

Cox has kept busy, but it’s been hard to see his films. I can still hear the bird sounds in this movie, amplified (as Roger Ebert pointed out) as though to emphasize the keen hearing of the sightless.