For a Woman continues French writer-director Diane Kurys’s career-long interest in autobiography. Kurys started out as an actress in the ’70s, but hasn’t returned to performing since directing 1977’s Peppermint Soda.
Rather, she’s crafted intimate domestic dramas — most of them, like her Oscar-nominated Entre Nous (1983), set in the past — that draw on her recollections of her family life.
For a Woman boasts a sloppy, 1980s-set framing device, which presents a Kurys surrogate (Sylvie Testud) diving into family photographs and heirlooms in the wake of her mother’s death. Her discoveries in those documents lead into the main narrative, which takes place in Lyon immediately post-WWII.
Like Kurys’s own parents, the Russian-Jewish couple at the center of For a Woman — tailor and Communist Party member Michel (Benoît Magimel) and stay-at-home mom Léna (Mélanie Thierry) — met in a concentration camp. Their bond is tested when Michel’s estranged, secretive brother, Jean (Nicolas Duvauchelle), shows up out of thin air and introduces a measure of mystery into the household.
Visually, Kurys offers a mostly conventional, period-handsome widescreen style, which suits her capable actors just fine. The real drawback, though, is the spoon-feeding frame narrative, which takes away from the urgency. In one telling moment, the Testud character enters a building in Lyon; she exits the frame on the right-hand side, but Kurys holds the shot without cutting, allowing Léna to enter the frame from the left. It’s a neat trick, mother and daughter merging in a single, time-condensing shot, but it shows that For a Woman is frequently more interested in the mechanics of its framing device than in its actual substance.