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This film is semi-autobiographical, based on the director's family of which we are reminded during the closing credits when pictures of the cast are replaced by black and white photographs that I assume to be the director's parents and close family.
This is a handsome period piece set mostly in the 1940's though it features some scenes in the late 80's and 1990 that coincide with the deaths of the parents. The film concerns French resident Jewish survivors of WW2 and concentration camps. We learn that Michel and Lena meet at such a camp; he was interred as both an enemy soldier and a Jew, she because she was Jewish. He saves her from certain death and as a consequence of this she agrees to marry him. In 1945 they have their first of two daughters, Tania, and Michel settles into life as a tailor in Lyons pioneering different cuts, styles and fabrics for men's suits. Michel has been helped into business by fellow Communist, Maurice, and the pair become friends as do their wives with Michel devoting his spare time to the Communist cause.
Into this idyll arrives Michel's brother, Jean, who was assumed to have perished fighting in WW2. His arrival heralds discoveries such as what became of their parents, Michel's troubled relationship with his father, the political activity of French and European Jews post-war hunting Nazis who are fleeing capture and trial and, most importantly, Lena's restlessness in her marriage to Michel.
Michel loves Lena with a devotion that he retains until death. Lena married Michel from gratitude and never quite feels the same passion although they enjoy a loving marriage. Lena and Jean are attracted to one another immediately and this attraction signifies the beginning of the end of her marriage to Michel although it will be a few more years before she leaves him.
The film is told from the perspective of Anne, the younger daughter, who we see at the start reminiscing and writing about her parents' story. The story is romantic and bittersweet and set as it is post-war amongst Jewish survivors, it has a certain epic quality, as though it stands for the truth of those times. Above all the film is very respectful and the closing lines capture the tone of the film well; these are them in English translation:
"We're given a family to begin with and create our own story where there's room or where there's light. We grow up as best we can between unspoken words, unanswered questions. And then one day we look at our parents as a man and as a woman we might have met and simply loved for what they were."
As a paean to parents the film works very well. Parents are likened to the perfume of the title 'pour une femme'; their scent lingers though their essence, when gone, remain ineffable. The perfume Michel buys Lena, a bottle of which is found by the sisters after his death, issues some of its fragrance though it is decades old, as was Michel and Lena's marriage.
Although it falls into sentimentality sometimes the film balances well the mixed feelings of the people and the times. I have reached an age where the loss of my second parent seems imminent and the film's tone and paean resonated deeply with me. The soundtrack is lovely and the ending song exquisite. Diana Kurys has produced a gentle, splendid film. Unfortunately its gentleness might lead it to be overlooked and/or undervalued.
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