Coup de foudre

(Entre Nous, France - 1983)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Miou-Miou, Guy Marchand, Jean-Pierre Bacri
Genre: Drama
Director: Diane Kurys
Screenplay: Alain Le Henry, Diane Kurys, & Olivier Cohen based on Kurys & Cohen's book
Cinematography: Bernard Lutic
Composer: Luis Enriquez Bacalov
Runtime: 110 minutes

"What future is there for me?" - Lena

Coup de foudre is first and foremost a film about being trapped. With France having been occupied by Nazi Germany in 1942, Helene "Lena" Weber (Isabelle Huppert), a Jew from Belgium, is stuck. In a refugee camp, everything she once had has been taken from her, and her life may soon follow if she doesn't find a way to avoid being sent to Germany. Seemingly, she lucks out when a Foreign Legion man stationed the camp is about to get his discharge and decides to roll the dice on her. He's been given permission to marry, but has no one to take for a wife. We don't know why he chooses her over the others, but in a way he can give Lena the gift of life, and despite many reservations what choice does she really have?

Lena's friend tells her phony marriages don't count before she agrees to accept. It sounds easy enough. She can just leave him once she's safe, but that winds up taking years and in the process things are complicated by her bearing two children. A bond of survival was formed almost immediately, but surviving and living are not the same thing. As opportunity should present itself, she finds out that she has nothing in common with her husband. He doesn't believe in doing something because his wife wants to, and she is too far removed from her interests to take the initiative to do them on her own.

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Lena shows spirit as soon as they get out of the camp, arguing with her husband (the motif of their marriage) immediately that she's stuck now that she's the wife of a man with the Jewish sounding name Isaac Mordeha Simon Korski (Guy Marchand). However, by the time we catch up with her after the liberation of France, even the person she was at the camp is a memory. Huppert, in a performance reminiscent of the superior one she went on to give as Madame Bovary (1991) for her best director Claude Chabrol, plays Lena as a totally unfulfilled woman who just drifts through life silently, passively, and listlessly. The brilliance of Huppert lies in doing so little yet projecting so much. We know there's still a small part of her that remembers what it was like to dance and go to the theater, that knows she deserves better out of life, but the outward signs are small and subtle. She's been broken down by all she had to go through to keep afloat and settled into sleepwalking through this new boredom, perhaps because it's less crushing than the sadness she knows trying to break out will bring.

Michel, as Korski goes by, is not really too blame. On at least two occasions, Lena would have died without his help. He's done everything within the limits of his character and personality to provide the best possible life for Lena. He's great with the children, but he always chooses them over his wife. He's not cultured or capable of affection toward a woman. He's not capable of comprehending why she'd rather work for someone else than work in his auto garage. Aside from his family, all he's interested in are cars, politics, and soccer. None of these interest Lena, but Michel will get his way or they'll just do separate things. He often doesn't handle himself well, definitely a hot head, but he's usually right to be angry because Lena is behaving deceptively, selfishly, and/or irresponsibly. He does love her very much, albeit the only way he knows how. He's managed to make something of himself, providing what he considers a good life for her by smuggling gold to get his auto repair business going then slaving away to keep it going. Lena is certainly not without material goods, and as all Michel requires of her is watching their kids, it's not like she has no time to have a life of her own. While she is hampered by not being able to drive, considering she has money there isn't much excuse for her never doing anything. "To pay, that's what I'm here for," says Michel. Lena's biggest problem is she doesn't pause to wonder why there is so little to her supposedly cultured self.

Things change drastically for Lena in 1952 when she meets a sophisticated, confident, free spirited would be artist Madeleine (Miou-Miou). Madeleine has suffered greatly due to the Germans as well; her husband who studied art with her is accidentally killed during an uprising outside the school by a stray resistance bullet. She's stuck living with her parents, and she's so crushed by her husband's death that she shuts life out. During the liberation party, she meets her art teacher Carlier (Patrick Bauchau) who tells her "Promise me something. Don't stay there. They'll suffocate you." One day she choose the alternative, she left her parents and got involved with a struggling no luck actor named Costa (Jean-Pierre Bacri). The funniest part is when he thinks he's going to make a boatload off stolen American dress shirts, only to find out after he's paid borrowed money for them that they only have one long sleeve. Anyway, she got pregnant and married. It was fun at first, perhaps only because it beat being a hermit. Like Michel, although Costa tries the only way he knows how, ultimately he will never be able to satisfy his wife. That is kind of why Michel and Costa form something of a bond, they have to do something while their disinterested wives are totally ignoring them.

Madeleine is much different than Lena. They share the same interests, but Miou-Miou plays Madeleine as Huppert's opposite. She's extroverted, confident, and carefree. Her problems are what lie beneath the surface, and she actually has more than Lena, but she finds ways to enjoy herself. Madeleine is a selfish and irresponsible dreamer. Although the differences between the two make her a lousy wife and a terrible mother (one wonders how much she's contributed to their kid being such a dud), there's no doubt she's alive.

Lena too is alive when she's with Madeleine. She breaks out of her shy insecure shell, lets out much of what has been repressed over the last 10+ years. Huppert can play these introverted characters that are not exactly likeable, yet still make you feel great joy when she starts to bloom. For a character like Lena or Bovary, a mere smile is a triumph.

Some people see this as a lesbian movie, but to me that point, which you could argue either way, is irrelevant. The relationships in the film are about compatibility vs. incompatibility. After a few hours, Madeleine tells Lena that her and Michel aren't meant for each other, and she's right on the mark. Lena & Madeleine are meant for each other. They are always happy together (except when the reality of their situation sets in), and find ways to not only do something with themselves but enjoy it. They both discover their potential and come into their own.

Lena and Madeleine's problem is that too many compromises took place in their lives before they met each other. They can only be happy when they are together, and when they are together it's like no one else exists. But their husbands and kids, excluded in all this, do exist. Lena used to be in something of a trance because she was unsatisfied, now she's in something of one because Madeleine is there and that makes her temporarily satisfied. They are too busy thinking about their dream to open a dress shop to realize one of Lena's daughters didn't get on the bus with them.

This really doesn't seem like my type of movie, but it all lies in the presentation. I could easily picture the story as a Lifetime movie, which would be bad for the multitude of reasons those movies are always technically bad as well as their biased man=bad presentation. A Hollywood version would be slanted, oversimplified, overblown, overacted, and always going for the supposed big moments. One of the only American directors I could envision handling it properly is Victor Nunez. The film is quite, delicate, subtle, and understated like his very good movies I've seen, Ruby in Paradise and Ulee's Gold.

You would never know Diane Kurys was directing a film based on her mother's story of her parent's marital difficulties. There does not seem to be any personal involvement, which can often be bad, but in this case her detachment gives the film it's honesty and professionalism.

Coup de foudre is a tragedy for everyone involved, and Kurys has done an excellent job at creating and maintaining this balance. She handles the material very sensitively, refusing to take sides or simplify situations. The focus is on Lena, but Guy Marchand delivers on the saddest, most wrenching scenes in the film. The husbands may be bores to their frustrated wives, but they love their wives far more than their wives, who bring them only heartbreak, love them back. The war is to blame, but that does not just let everyone off the hook. Every adult in this film has suffered greatly and none of them are without blame. Kurys knows we can see all this without her needing to bog down her film with moralization or even any emphasis on these key points. The film is strongest in its silence, in good part due to excellent casting decisions that led to strong subtle performances. There's a lot that's "not there," but the film is better for having an ambiguity and an undercurrent.

All the characters are complex believable individuals that stay within themselves and act logically based on their own rational. The problems are all real, and the answers are all difficult. There is no solution that works for everyone. It's easy to say they should compromise, do it for the kids if for nobody else, but they have been compromising forever and compromise has done more toward making every adult unhappy than making any happy. It's hard to cut ties even to release yourself from knots. Any course of action has consequences. They either continue to pay for the past or give up the present. As Michel says, "What a waste! A waste…"




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