Vol. 4 No. 14, June 2000
Filming the Present Past
Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press/St Martin's Press, 1999
Carrie Tarr's short book is nevertheless packed with detailed, well-researched, and insightful information about French filmmaker Diane Kurys, whose most popularly-received movie abroad was 1983's _Coup de Foudre (Entre Nous)_. Billed on the jacket blurb as the 'first full-length study of Kurys' work', this book may well be the last on the subject unless Kurys finds her touch again and creates more films of that caliber. On the other hand, if she goes another route and becomes less accessible and more enigmatic still, she may yet end up in the smallest section of the video store, the female art-film auteur.
In the meantime, this is a satisfying book about an uneven but always fascinating director who also scripts and produces her films. Tarr, a Senior Research Fellow at Thames Valley University in London, does an excellent job of discussing both Kurys's work as a whole and each of her seven films individually (her eighth, about George Sand and Alfred de Musset, opened recently in France). From her beginning as an actor to her pursuit of an auteurial passion for details, Kurys emerges here as a complex woman who both rebels against and works 'within a patriarchal culture' (141) as she tries to make sense of a pastiche of events in her early life, events shaped by a Holocaust she did not experience directly but which shaped her nevertheless.
Kurys was born in December 1948 in Lyons, the second of two girls born to Russian Jews who had met in a detention camp in Vichy France. The couple separated a few years later; Kurys's father remained in Lyons, running a men's clothing shop, while her mother moved to Paris, where she owned a boutique. The mother's decision to leave was energized by her strong bond with another woman, which lasted the rest of their lives. Diane Kurys resented the separation and, at sixteen, she ran off to join her father. But shortly afterwards she and her own lifelong companion, Alexandre Arcady, went to Israel to live on a kibbutz (collective farming community). They stayed through the 1967 Six Day War and, when Kurys completed high school, they returned to Paris, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne. A short while later, swept up in the student revolt of May 1968, she quit university and they both went into theater, Diane as an actor and Alexandre as an actor and director.
After eight years, complaining that there were no meaningful roles for women, Kurys left the theater to pursue a career in filmmaking, beginning in 1977 with _Diabolo menthe_ (_Peppermint Soda_). Based on her own life, as in fact is the case for Kurys films as a whole, the film won prizes and acclaim and established her as a fresh female voice. She produced the film with her partner Arcady, who then went on to make ten successful films of his own. Although they produce their films together, and in fact have 'produced' a son, Yasha, in 1991, the couple have resisted marriage: 'In the spirit of May 1968, Kurys has never married and believes in the importance of freedom within the couple' (13).
According to Tarr's analysis, Diane Kurys mined her complicated family history for her very personal films (the exception may be the film that opened after the book was in press). Thus, for example, in _Cocktail Molotov_ (1980), the main character is Anne, seventeen years old and rebellious: 'Her assertion of independence is linked with her drive to separate from her mother and claim control over her body and her sexuality' (48). To that end, Anne is endowed with little feeling and no female friendship. This stance is the opposite of the one explored in Kurys's _Coup de Foudre_, which explores the relationship between two married women, and may explain the film's core problem, as discussed by Tarr: 'The sense that the characters are onlookers rather than participants in life may account in part for the film's failure to create empathy with its characters, as may be its inability to embrace fully the subjectivity of its central female character' (54).
These three first films constitute one narrative that follows a girl's life from several points of view and approaches. However close these stories come to mirror Kurys's autobiography, however, she insists that they are not about her, although she did reveal in an interview dated 1980 that films 'allow me to remember and to understand the way I was, how I was formed and what I am like today' (41). Kurys's reluctance to accept authorship of her auteur films constitutes a telling clue to the reason for her films' reception. In the first film, the action and exuberance of the story overcame many technical problems usually associated with first feature films, but later films did not shed or resolve those problems, as Kurys opted time and again for reserve and even distancing tools to separate herself from the audience. She seems to be both sharing and secretive, both open and closed, in her narrative technique. In the end, the feeling a critic is left with is that Kurys is a strong, wilful, assertive, and capable woman of creative power, who has somehow chosen not to fully plumb the depth of her autobiography as she skims its surface for ideas. Thus, she both presents her stories and detaches herself from them. Thus, while Kurys is considered a feminist filmmaker, she co-writes and co-produces her material with men. Her strategy -- and it is successful -- seems to be not to critique the system that keeps women from the sources and resources of power, but to gain access by sharing that power with those who already have some. Thus, 'despite generic traces of melodrama and the woman's picture through material based on personal life and the family, they are not fully centered on their central female protagonists, unlike Hollywood melodramas or 'independent women's films' (or romantic fiction for women)' (146). Kurys decenters her feminism, her activist tendencies at rebellion against the way things are (and ought not to be); she thus fails to take that extra step that would place her within the film rather than, with her audience, outside it, looking in.
Tarr does an excellent job of analyzing the films. In chronological order, she goes from one film to the next, outlining the plot, the cinematic aspects, the narrative problems and the directorial decisions. Tarr is clear and forthright, a refreshing departure for an academic book on film. The language is simple but the message is complex; Tarr does not sacrifice depth and breadth while writing well in an accessible manner. Each film is given a chapter of its own: _Diabolo menthe_ (1977); _Cocktail Molotov_ (1980); _Coup de foudre_ (1983); _Un homme amoureux_ (1987); _La Baule Les Pins_ (1990); _Apres L'amour_ (1992); and _A la folie_ (1994). Tarr includes spectatorship statistics for France, showing that while _Diabolo menthe_ wowed over two million viewers, _A la folie_ barely wooed 115,000. Four of Kurys's films are generally available on video in the US (and presumably in Europe as well) under the titles: _Peppermint Soda_, _Entre Nous_, _A Man in Love_ and _Love After Love_.
While Tarr is clearly indebted to Kurys for extensive interviews and access to resources, she nevertheless is not an uncritical fan. She appreciates Kurys's work without seeing genius in it, or even greatness. For Tarr, it seems, Kurys is a competent, appealing, problematic, but energetic filmmaker whose work recycles her life -- something that, for Tarr, is the essence of ecriture (or any other creative act) feminine -- incorporating diaries, memoirs, and personal memory in a 'fragmentary' fashion. Yet paradoxically, while Kurys treats many different subjects (rebellion and revolution, love and desire, polysexed relationships) she does so from a male gaze. At the same time, in many Kurys films, the 'representation of the heterosexual couple and masculinity is ambiguous and contradictory' (135).
It is this reworking of the self through myriad others that Tarr defines as the rich source of Kurys's voice, her signature: 'the ways in which characters and incidents recur from film to film and are reworked into different stories (though usually under different names) produces a never-ending intertextuality which is also considered typically 'feminine' . . . The cyclical endings are in fact one of the strongest components of Kurys's authorial signature' (147). Another component is the 'dedication or an afterword' in three films, which draw audience's attention to 'the fact that the film is based on the author's autobiographical experience', while another three present more 'fragmented' slices from he multifaceted life story (147). The only film to eschew autobiography is the English-language _A Man in Love_ (1987), a film that Tarr finds the least satisfying because it is the least feminine, or perhaps, in Tarr's own words, it 'fails to offer the traditional pleasures of the woman's picture' by not filming from the female protagonist's point of view (90). Jane is not a victim; she 'operates as a free agent, unfettered by conventional moral codes' (91). For young feminists and those not bored in suburbia but successful in boardrooms, Jane's story may not be far-fetched and the lack of sentimentality may be refreshing; so it seems that a 'woman's picture' is subject to social flux, and perhaps Kurys, by not following in the footsteps of 1950s melodramas, is a progressive filmmaker with a unique approach that cannot be compartmentalized into a tag-line. Tarr herself seems to be ambivalent, because a few paragraphs earlier she had expressed a different assessment of Kurys and her supposedly unfeminine gaze: '_Un homme amoureux_ is potentially a fascinating film in the way it weaves a melodramatic love story into a cinematic setting, focalized through a woman's point of view' (90). Clearly, Kurys is not an easily categorized filmmaker. While I see this as potentially positive, Tarr is uneasy, seeming to prefer unambiguous statements.
To her credit, Tarr appreciates Kurys's attempts at cohesion in a complicated life, an attempt that is especially poignant in perhaps her most famous international success, _Coup de foudre_, a film that explores her mother's decision to leave her father and start life in Paris with her female companion. Kurys is frustrating, infuriating even, when she tells a story that seems to mean one thing and then recoils from the narrative's implications in interviews and, perhaps more sadly, in life. This inability of introspection may be the root of Kurys's cinematic circularity, and it may be the heart of her appeal as well, because she leaves many windows and doors open for spectator speculation.
The story of Lena -- her rescue from certain death in a Vichy detention camp by Michel (a legionnaire who, it turns out, is himself Jewish), their wartime sojourn in Italy, and their middle-class life together back in France as a married couple with two girls -- is told with a keen eye for period detail and human drama. Madeleine, who lost her young husband early in the war and is now married to a fool with whom she has a whining son, is an artist, a free spirit who befriends Lena. Together the women explore life beyond the marital cocoon and plan to open a dress shop together. However, the men are not pleased with their growing intimacy and Lena's husband in an angry moment calls them 'dykes'. Finally, the two women leave the small town and move to Paris with their children to pursue their dream and, presumably, their relationship, which is hinted rather than shown. When the girls' father, who adores them and is loved in turn, comes to visit them at the beach, he is asked to leave. The final shot is of the two women and their children against the sea. Then the screen is augmented with this legend (in French): 'My father left at dawn/He never saw my mother again/It is now two years after Madeleine has died' (in fact, by the film's release, Kurys lost her mother as well).
As Tarr notes, these words underscore the narrative as an 'incurable wound' in the filmmaker's life, even so many years after the fact. Moreover, she writes: 'This afterword, which provoked both tears and applause on the part of contemporary spectators, reveals that what had appeared to be fiction is in fact autobiographical, and the little girl whose longing gaze structures the final image represents Diane Kurys herself as a child' (62). Like the innocent child, Pauline Kael also thought of the women as involved in a relationship that is not lesbian; in interviews, she has made it clear that this is her approach to the affair. Thus, in the end, the 'potentially feminist narratives of women's struggle for independence and of the intense pleasure of female friendship are challenged by the final image of the lonely, vulnerable child, who, as the adult filmmaker, inherits her mother's determination to go her own way, but whose later representations of her own relationships with women are quite problematic' (70).
In sum, this is an immensely readable and ultimately satisfying book that is, like its subject and her films, strong and ambiguous, formal and charismatic, closed and fluid all at once. Read the book -- and go see the movies!
University of Maryland, USA
Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000
Liora Moriel, 'Filming the Present Past', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 14, June 2000 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n14moriel>.
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