Michel (Guy Marchand) falls in love with Jewish refuge Lena (Isabelle Huppert) at first sight and offers marriage as a way she can avoid being sent to a German concentration camp. She accepts, and although she doesn't love him, they have two children and are still married when we pick up the action again in Lyons in 1952 when Lena is 29-years-old. There she meets the sophisticated and well-to-do artist Madeleine (Miou-Miou) who awakens her to the drabness of her existence as a housewife with a loutish husband who now runs a gas station. The attraction between Lena and Madeleine is very strong, and very threatening to the men, especially to Michel.
Huppert's poignant and bittersweet portrayal reminds me of her delicate work in Madame Bovary (1991). There is the same listlessness expressed along with a vague desire for something better out of life, and the anticipation of the sadness that we know will come of such desire. Miou-Miou is sharp and cynical with perhaps a streak of the manic-depressive about her. The love they spontaneously feel for one another is real and beautiful and makes us want it to be fulfilled. But Lena holds herself back because of her family, and then it is the men and propriety that get in the way.
Of course this is very French and Lena and Madeleine hold hands and comfort one another while telling each other their innermost secrets including the infidelities of their spouses, etc. (The men have no such communication.) Director Diane Kurys exercises more restraint in showing the physical nature of their mutual attraction than would be displayed today. Lena says to Madeleine at one point, "I want to kiss you," but we do not see them kissing. The most explicit scene sexually is the startling, but delicately expressed, meeting with the soldiers on the train where we discover the full extent of Lena's frustration.
This is not quite a great movie. The pace is a little slow in spots and sometimes the focus is not as sharp as it could be. But it is an extraordinarily honest movie, and I'll take that over sharp technique any day. Huppert is not only at her best here, but her exquisite and subtle beauty is shown to great advantage. Miou-Miou is also very pretty of course--this is the first time I've seen her--so I would say her strength of character is perhaps her strongest suit. This is a human tragedy on a small, intimate scale, one that we can't help but feel could have been averted had those involved understood one another better, had they been a little wiser. We've all been there before and so we can share the sadness and the sense of loss.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!"