Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Women on the verge

In a burst of fresh air for French film, "Mina Tannenbaum" is a movie about the messy, painful side of female friendships.

Published June 16, 1998 3:54PM (EDT)

A few weeks ago two women friends of mine were having a conversation in
which they admitted to one another that they were each wary of women
friends. They were sick, one told me later, of watching women complain
about what pigs men are, and then seeing those same women behave badly
toward the men in their lives. They were exasperated with women who wore
their insecurities on their sleeves and treated their female friends who
didn't share those insecurities as if they weren't deserving of membership
in some special club.

Impolite feelings like these usually get left out of movies about female
friendships. Pictures as different as "Entre Nous" and "Thelma and Louise"
are, at bottom, us vs. them movies -- "them" being men, and "us" being
the powerful united front of sisterhood, which is usually portrayed as
loving, supportive, indivisible, one nation under the goddess. It's as if
acknowledging any divisions that couldn't be sealed up by love and tears
equals endorsing some retrograde image of women.

"Mina Tannenbaum," the 1993 debut film by French director Martine
Dugowson, plunges right into those fissures. It's an undeniably feminist
picture: Dugowson's subject is the complexity of women's friendships and
the even thornier tangle of women's relationships with their mothers. The
characters' pain, as well as their pleasure, is all firmly grounded in
female experience. As a filmmaker, however, Dugowson knows that she can't
make art if she's trying to be a credit to her gender. She risks taking on
the messy, unresolvable emotions that female buddy movies usually ignore.
The women in "Mina Tannenbaum" love each other. They also wound, criticize
and compete. The women I know who've seen the film speak of it in terms of
that overworked clichi, a shock of recognition. For men, it's like being
privy to all the conversations and arguments you never hear about, and it's
not nearly as alien an experience as some men might think. "Mina
Tannenbaum" is about that best friend who drives you crazy half -- or even
three-quarters -- of the time, and yet the one you can never bring yourself
to break with.

Mina (Romane Bohringer) and Ethel (Elsa Zylberstein) are one of those
mismatches that often becomes a lifelong bond. They meet in 1968 when
they're both 10, both growing up Jewish in Paris and both outcasts among
kids their age. The similarities end there. Ethel is the outsider who
desperately wants to be accepted, and Mina is the sort who craves and
disdains acceptance at the same time. Ethel, who comes from a prosperous
middle-class family, is bubbly and shallow, a sensualist. Without much of a
passion for anything, she winds up doing pop journalism. Mina, whose family
is solidly working class, is withdrawn and intense, something of a pain.
She knows how her unyielding manner, her unyielding standards, keep her at
arm's length from others, and yet she can't relax them, with Ethel, with
the men in her life or with the teachers and gallery owners she encounters
when she becomes a painter. To Mina, that would mean surrendering her
self-respect. The friendship between Mina and Ethel is both salve and
irritant. Neither one can keep from seeking out the other for support -- or
keeping a running tally of all her friend's shortcomings.

The first part of the movie covers familiar ground -- disappointments in
love, the women's dissatisfaction with their bodies and their appearances.
(Mina's straight hair and glasses give her an owlish look. Ethel, who was a
chubby kid, still thinks of herself as fat; she's not, just fleshy.) These
scenes never feel rote because Dugowson has a knack for making the emotions
raw and fresh; they stay in the back of our mind as we watch the older Mina
and Ethel navigate their way through relationships and establish themselves
professionally. Dugowson juxtaposes the ways in which we reinvent ourselves
with the parts of our personalities that never change, and the hostility we
feel toward those who call us back to the identities we think we've
discarded. When Ethel gets into a fight with her mother and screams, "I'm
not a child," she reverts to a screaming adolescent in front of our eyes.

Dugowson is alive to the humiliations (sexual, professional, social) that
Mina and Ethel face as women, but her real subject is the ambivalence of
their friendship, which is at least as debilitating as it is sustaining.
Their sympathy for each other is always tempered by unspoken criticism.
Mina and Ethel walk around carrying on an argument with each other in their
heads, and it gets in the way of their lives. The movie is honest enough to
admit Ethel's realization, after being separated from Mina, "With time, she
preferred the memory of her friend to her presence."

There is a difference between being asked to sympathize with characters
whose faults neither the filmmaker nor the actors own up to and being
asked to feel something for characters whose every flaw is out in the open.
Dugowson takes the latter approach. Bohringer and Zylberstein
give the sort of performances that make no compromises for the sake of
winning over the audience, and yet win us over anyway.

After a long period when French movies seemed divided between stultified
prestige adaptations of the classics and big, dumb entertainments, a
handful of filmmakers have emerged who've revitalized the personal
tradition of French filmmaking. I'm thinking of directors like Claire Denis
("I Can't Sleep," "Ninette et Boni") and Olivier Assayas ("Irma Vep," "Cold
Water"). There are older filmmakers, too, still working in that tradition,
like Andri Tichini ("Ma saison prifirie") and Jacques Rivette ("La belle
noiseuse," "Haut bas fragile"). And there are actors with vivid
personalities: Laurence Ctti, Marianne Denicourt, Natalie Richard, Chiara
Mastroianni. Of all the new French filmmakers, Dugowson (and Assayas in
"Irma Vep") comes closest to the sense of discovery and possibilities that
animated the '60s new wave work of Frangois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Agnhs Varda. At
several points in "Mina Tannenbaum," Dugowson quotes directly from Godard's
"Two or Three Things I Know About Her." This is an ultimately tragic film,
but its melancholy is mixed with Dugowson's exhilaration at working in the
medium and her confidence in using whatever means are at hand.

If "Mina Tannenbaum," one of the most impressive European debuts since the
'70s, is a sign of life for French film, then its nearly nonexistent
theatrical run in this country is further proof that foreign films are on
the critical list in America. Last year, Film Comment made a convincing
case that, had the same situation existed in the '60s, American audiences
would not have seen the work of Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci, Marco Bellochio, Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray. Dugowson's second film, 1996's "Portraits chinois" ("Shadow Play"), was
released in Britain, but not here. If you're lucky enough to live near a
university or a museum with a good film program, you might get to see some
current foreign films that won't be turning up at commercial theaters. I am
encouraged by how many of these foreign films turn up on video. I just wish
I didn't have to wait for them to get there to alert readers to their

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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