The inspiration for Diane Kurys’ semi-autobiographical new movie, “For a Woman,” began a decade ago as the French filmmaker rummaged through a drawer and found an old photograph of her father’s mysterious brother, Jean.
Family lore had it that Jean escaped the Soviet Red Army for France in 1947, when he lived with Kurys’ parents for more than a year before the filmmaker was born. “My father was always very angry with my uncle, and the two men never spoke,” Kurys, 65, recalled of her childhood in a telephone interview from her Paris home. “There were insinuations that something had happened involving my mother — perhaps she had kissed [Jean]” — or more.
Kurys recalled that as her mother was dying of cancer in the early 1980s, “She said, ‘You think your father loved you when you were born, but he was not close to you at all. He didn’t want to touch you or talk to you.’”
The filmmaker thought she had landed on a possible reason for her father’s rejection when she turned over the photograph and saw the date — some time in 1947, about nine months before she was born. Could she have been the illegitimate child of an illicit liaison between her mother and her uncle?
“For a Woman” — in French with English subtitles — is Kurys’ imagined take on that possible affair, amply embellished with real memories of her parents’ troubled marriage. The film opens in the 1980s, as Kurys’ alter ego, Anne (Sylvie Testud), is so intrigued by an old family photo that she launches an investigation to learn the truth about her elusive uncle as well as the reason for her parents’ long-ago separation.
We learn that her parents actually met in the French concentration camp Rivesaltes; Anne’s father, Michel (Benoit Magimel), then 31, had seen her beautiful, fragile mother, Lena (Melanie Thierry), 20, from afar, and had fallen in love with her at first sight. When a camp commander who had supervised Michel’s former Legionnaire regiment offered to help him escape, Michel begged to bring his “fiancée.” But the commander insisted that the couple had to marry first.
“When my mother actually heard about this proposal, she cried all night before she agreed to marry him,” Kurys said of the real events that inspired the characters’ experience.
Flashback scenes depict the couple in 1947, when Michel, by then a member of the Communist Party and the owner of a men’s clothing shop in Lyon, is stunned when his younger brother, Jean (Nicolas Duvauchelle), suddenly shows up on his doorstep. Jean claims he arrived in France after fleeing the Soviet army, but his vagueness about the past leads the couple to wonder whether he is involved in the black market or possibly even a secret mission to avenge the Jews after the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, the smoldering attraction between Jean and Lena threatens to implode the family, as antagonism grows between the brothers and secrets are revealed.
Lena and Michel are the names of Kurys’ real parents; it’s not the first time she has dissected her parents’ doomed marriage onscreen. Her Academy Award-nominated drama, “Entre Nous” (1983) examines the reasons for their turbulent divorce from the point of view of Kurys’ mother.
“For a Woman” explores the same events “from my father’s side,” the filmmaker said. “He was a man who had been betrayed by everyone: by his wife, his brother, the Communist Party and even by life.
“What I realized in making the film was that he didn’t have the right equipment to adapt to a wife who was so different from him and so much younger,” she added. “He was a communist, and she was uninterested in politics, but rather in getting everything she previously had been denied: seeking an education, reading poetry, having nice clothes. But my father thought that was futile and frivolous.”
Kurys believes that her mother stayed with her father for 10 years because she was grateful that he had saved her life and because they had been through so much together: After escaping from Rivesaltes, the couple fled France by walking over the Alps for three days to safety in Italy.
“My bedtime stories were always about how my parents escaped the [Nazis],” Kurys recalled.
When Diane was 6, her parents finally divorced, which proved to be a seminal, traumatic event in the filmmaker’s life. After she went off to live with her mother and older sister in a cold-water apartment in Paris, she prayed every night for years that they would reconcile. Visiting her father in his dusty, messy home, adorned with half of the family’s furniture, proved a dispiriting experience: “He was like a man torn in two,” Kurys said.
“I do think that the reason I have been so obsessed with my parents and making films about them is probably that I wanted to see them back together again,” she added.
When Kurys was in her late teens, she studied for a time at the Lycée Jules-Ferry before going off to live on a kibbutz in Israel for a year, where she helped dig bomb shelters during the Six-Day War. After her return to France, she worked as an actress for eight years; when that profession left her “miserable,” she said, she began jotting down personal memories in order to turn them into screenplays — eventually earning the reputation as a writer-director who often draws on autobiography to create her intimate films.
Her debut feature, “Peppermint Soda” (1977), revolves around two sisters living in Paris with their divorced mother; “Cocktail Molotov” (1980) draws on Kurys’ recollections of participating in the Paris student movement of 1968.
As Kurys wrote “Entre Nous,” her mother was dying of breast and bone cancer, “So I wanted to write about her and how she took her freedom,” Kurys said.
She added that movies spotlighting her family have helped her to exorcise some personal demons. “You don’t do it specifically for that purpose, but it does ease the pain of the past so you can move on,” she said.
Yet, after “For a Woman,” Kurys added, she no longer needs to examine her parents’ relationship onscreen. Rather, she is now working a comic film adapted from a novel.
“It’s a good change of pace for me, and it will do me good.”
“For a Woman” opens in Los Angeles on June 6.