Entre nous
Gender anaylzed

by Hervé Wattelier

from Jump Cut, no. 32, April 1987, pp. 8, 37
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1987, 2006

One of ENTRE NOUS' remarkable achievements is to elevate gossip to the status of a politicized speech. Through gossip, the two women of ENTRE NOUS, Lena and Madeleine, end up creating a loose network of mutual support, a kinship which also proves far superior to their husbands' ways of coping with emotional alienation.

The narrative seems especially "authentic." Director Diane Kurys constructs a plot around two couples in 1950s provincial France from her own memories. Michel, the main father and husband depicted, does not represent an ideal companion but a typical one. He shows weakness and vulnerability. He is a congenial man who revels in bedtime stories and frolicking with his daughters. He caters to their needs like a gardener tends to his plants. Indeed, his daughters and his wife are his flowers. A dedicated and loving father, he relishes in their perfumes and their neat appearances. Yet, we also see how his energy primarily is focused on safeguarding his family from outside interference.

ENTRE NOUS is a study of the complex emotions of domestic life. The narrative functions like a psychological journey. It moves from the child's trauma of seeing mommies and daddies at war to the last act of the filmmaker's oedipal complex. It invites us to see a gender-inflected, dominant principle of incompatibility, and fatal insulation between two types of mental functioning: Lena's and Madeleine's on one side and Michel's or Costa's on the other. In the way in which the plot development manipulates the characters, the narrative line operates in two directions at once and subverts the relations between the men and women. The audience is encouraged to travel psychically inward and outward, inward where imagination travels toward an analysis, which makes it possible to travel outward again by other social routes (the cure). Although we see much from a child's perspective, the narrative development provides the audience with an educational and entertaining tool to analyze gender relations on a firmer, adult ground.

ENTRE NOUS by Diane Kurys (1983) traces a love relation between two women over time, especially as the two women marry and the couples are "best friends." The first section of the film presents episodes of their individual lives before they fleet. We see these events in a checkerboard style. Lena, a young Jewish woman from Belgium, waits to be transferred to Germany in 1942 from a concentration camp in the Pyrenees region of southern France. A discharged French Legionnaire offers to save her if she consents to marry him. Having nothing to lose, she accepts indifferently and they leave the camp together to take refuge in Italy.

Madeleine is a young French art student happily married to a classmate. He gets killed in their Clermont-Ferrand (central France) schoolyard as he rushes to protect Madeleine during an exchange of fire with the French fascist militia. Later during France's liberation, their former art teacher, Carlier, whose life Madeleine's husband had helped save, triumphantly emerges from jail. Carlier courts Madeleine, who is still coming out of an intense period of depression.

Lena and Madeleine are both living in Lyon in the aftermath of World War II. They meet accidentally at their children's grade school Christmas party. After an affair with Carlier, Madeleine has married Costa, a young, economically unsuccessful actor. His attempts to make money are almost pathetic. If he is not dealing in stolen art work, he is trying to profit from a trainload of one-sleeved shirts. As Madeleine puts it, Costa made her laugh and got her pregnant.

Lena is still married to her former Legionnaire husband, Michel, who has now opened a garage in Lyon. Lena and Michel have two daughters, with whom Michel has a close tie. Lena and Madeleine gradually develop a close relationship. Finally, Madeleine informs Lena of her intention to leave Costa, who plagues her with his inability to cope and his insecurity, and she urges Lena to come with her to Paris and open a fashion boutique. Lena decides to stay with Michel, even though, as Madeleine told her, that marriage is not a loving one. The women separate. The loss of her friend causes Madeleine to have a nervous breakdown, unknown to Lena.

Meanwhile, Lena makes a hesitant deal with Michel; she won't see her "dyke" friend again, and he'll help her open a boutique in Lyon. However, the two women return to an even closer relation. This makes Michel violent. At the end the two women and their daughters now live together. We see Michel's visit and him crying after a last attempt to get his family back. In this last sequence, the camera looks at him from the subjective point of view of his loving younger daughter, and the final credits indicate that that child represented the filmmaker herself.

ENTRE NOUS interweaves the social relations of heterosexual marital domestic space and women's unique ideological turf. Lena delays her own decision to leave by partial answers to herself and others, by ambiguities, and by outright lies. She does so both deliberately and self-deceivingly. She needs such a mindset because she has little domestic leeway as long as she strives to conform to her husband's expectations. For a long time, she accepts his sense of domestic order and geometry and does nothing overt to violate patriarchal authority. She and he accept the traditional division of labor, with her tending to domestic chores while he, as breadwinner, deals exclusively with the public sphere. The film first presents this opposition between the domestic and public sphere as "natural" since Lena is shown tied to her role of child rearing. The film uses scenes of child rearing to connote the matrimonial arrangement, but the director inflects those scenes with a pervasive perception of the parents' role inequality. For example, when Lena goes on winter vacation with her two girls, one asks, "Why doesn't daddy come with us?" Lena replies, "Because someone has to pay for our vacation, no?"

ENTRE NOUS' narrative structure uniquely establishes a structural framework that lets us analyze its characters' distinctive spheres of influence. The film identifies and explores the social and emotional place of "husband" and "wife," especially as these roles are traditionally defined in regard to each other. Lena has married heterosexual privilege and middle class privilege, but she faces a disproportionate distribution of power within her "woman's" domestic sphere. The narrative indicates the public sphere through Michel and Costa's relations, shown in terms of their ranked, competitive positions within France's postwar emerging middle class. The film depicts domestic labor, including psychological ego-tending, through Madeleine and Lena and their activities.

In a way the film indicates what is "typical" of most marriages — that women's labor and interests receive only idiosyncratic attention from men. At one point, when Costa tries to peddle his batch of one-sleeved shirts, his business failure comes to dominate the couples' social interaction since Costa refuses to pay Michel back $200 he borrowed (or as Costa says, which Michel "invested"). Madeleine tells Lena about the problem, which prompts Lena to take money from Michel's cash register. After Michel threatens to fire an employee for stealing, Lena says she took the money to pay for a tombstone on her mother's grave in Antwerp (women being the caretakers of birth and death and family history). Michel drives all the way to Belgium to see if she is lying. The conclusion to be drawn is that Michel invests foolishly, revealing that the Daddy can do whatever he wants with his money whereas Lena, the Mommy and Wife, has to "steal" it from him even though she does so to salvage his masculine ego, knowing that his social contractual obligations represent his very selfhood/ manhood. She also must dissemble in order to conceal from him her privileged relation with Madeleine because with her theft, Lena prevents what would have been a break-up between the two households.

Because Michel sees Lena here in terms of property, she cannot at this point discuss or justify the depth of her relation with Madeleine. Her situation parallels her husband's social and emotional castration. She is drastically limited in the emotional relations she can express, and she can barely construct her relations either outside or within her domestic sphere. Lena is involved in maintaining her husband's rule, trying to commit herself to the image of herself that Michel wants.[1][open notes in new window] She feels obligated to him because he saved her from certain death by marrying her. Her conscience makes her try to be the kind of person her husband wants. So both Michel and Lena end up being threatened when she breaks the rules of obligation/ marriage. This is not to say, however, that Lena regards herself as Michel does. She has relied on Michel to create an image of her, but she comes to realize that she has been allowed to paint her own self-image only partially. Otherwise she has accepted or been subjected to Michel's projections about who she is. Now she chooses Madeleine's affection to be able to complete her emotional life.

Michel, on the other hand, has the social right to make a particular decision which commands obedience (his deal with Costa). His social power, especially over "investing" the family's money, makes him the readable repository of authority. That authority affects Lena's "turf." In terms of domestic decision-making, she uses her "feminine" power — her "ability to act effectively on persons and things that make or secure favorable decisions"[2] — to assuage and reinforce Michel's authority. When she "steals" from Michel, Lena cannot justify her real motives but must keep them in the background, must keep up a certain appearance of causality which does not represent her own reasons. But her "theft" also indicates that she must acknowledge a certain level of oppression and indeed accept it as the price she must pay if she wants to keep access to her emotions (i.e., to Madeleine). In effect, all the woman's emotions are denied by the man because he must seemingly remain the locus of cultural values, and therefore overwhelmingly morally important. As a result, the woman must be defined as a deviant, a manipulator, and a thief.

I focus on this one episode of theft because symbolically, thievery within the domestic sphere has other resonances, as it would within a dream. "Theft" here reflects the woman's absence from her husband's cognitive and emotional system in which no room is made for her interests. Lena is not "publicly" understood by Michel ("Have you fallen that low?" says Michel as Lena tells him about the money). Lena ordinarily can relate to Michel only as an emotional support or an emotional dependent, only within the domestic category of mother/ wife. Transgressing those boundaries is a risk.

In the film, the most acutely painful representation of the mother/wife "law" that binds the women characters comes in another sequence where Madeleine and Lena take a walk with their children. In one sense, because the women are negotiating their own social status and discussing that with each other, this is a "business" walk. Madeline has decided to leave her husband; she is tired of Costa's constant criticism of her and his own lack of self-confidence. She considers working in Paris. As they board a local bus, Sophie, Lena and Michel's younger daughter, gets lost. The girl eventually goes to her father's garage. When Michel returns home, he slaps Lena in front of Madeleine and the children. "That's all you have to do all day. And even that you can't do right!" he storms.

This sequence corresponds to Costa and Michel's previous interaction, for it once again presents Madeleine and Lena's dealings together as anomalous and thus dangerous — as outside the rationalized, socially justified system of norms based on their husbands' financial pursuits. The film insistently shows that the women's bartering space is crowded with children when the women try to take hold of their own desires. As mothers and wives, they must identify with their children and husbands as well as with their own needs.

In this way, by constantly maintaining the characters within this specific kind of tension, the film explicitly traces out the boundaries of a woman's discourse. This discourse exists within socially hidden labor, that is, within "everyday" life. Michel's abusive reaction to his daughter's getting lost negated the possibility that he night be able to see that Madeleine and Lena's conversation might have been so important that they would unconsciously transgress the boundaries set for them. Michel's response to Lena's particular goals fits Freud's definition of "denial" — he refuses to perceive a fact imposed by the external world (here, by Madeleine). What happens within Michel's seraglio has no real importance in his eyes as long as nothing threatens its internal security.
In the scene where the child gets lost and Michel explodes, the cinematic montage clearly articulates his strategy:

  1. Michel introduces his evidence, "Does one forget a five-year-old child?";
  2. he slaps his wife in a dramatic low angle;
  3. he stands up to Madeleine.

In the subsequent exchange between Michel and Madeleine, Lena and her children are completely absent from the image. Indeed, Madeleine's subversive attitude is what Michel fears and challenges. He does not see Lena here; she is part of the background noise with her children. He scolds Lena about the "law" of motherhood from a discourse located outside/beyond child rearing. Whenever she goes out, she must remain both beyond and still within her domestic roles. This double bind characterizes all turf allowed Lena for her activities outside the domestic sphere.

Lena's situation reveals, in fact, a phenomenon common to all social minorities. Dominance is significantly one-dimensional. Social control of the systems of representation leaves no space for an alternative code of behavior but only a peripheral one of anomaly, disruption and illegitimacy. To understand otherness or the Other threatens loss of privilege or, minimally, shame and guilt. So this understanding becomes repressed and relegated to the background of the oppressor's mind as something "unimportant." Such repression on the part of the oppressor structures disjunction and violence into the dynamics of the unconscious.

Costa bitterly denies his need for social recognition. Thus he comes to resent his wife's wanting to fulfill her own artistic potential. (Madeleine reports to Lena how Costa tells her it's "her fault" when he is not successful.) Costa uses Madeleine for narcissistic-phallic reassurance rather than for mutual affirmation and love. We hear Madeleine's frustration and loneliness as she tells Lena on the bus that she's leaving for Paris, and consequently these emotions shape Lena's own "fault" as she loses track of her child for a brief moment.

These plot developments comment on the place of men in women's world and of women's in men's world. The men are not as emotionally important to each other in the same fundamental way as Madeleine and Lena are to each other. The men each feel that their wife is (exclusively) necessary for him, albeit for different narcissistic reasons. Costa needs Madeleine like an unweaned whiny child would need a mother, while Michel wants Lena to be his "daughter" wife.

Michel's love for Lena might be equated to the gardener's love for some exotic and fragile plant growing in a hot house: "I watered you like a plant!" he screams, thrashing a bonsai plant, a gift from Madeleine to Lena, against the wall. "I suffocate without her," retorts Lena, who has returned from her exclusive "entre nous" (between us) rendezvous in Paris with Madeleine. In a later sequence preceding Lena's leaving Michel, Michel had made her promise never to see Madeleine again. Then he discovers both women sipping champagne together to celebrate the opening of Lena's boutique; his immediate impulse is to smash the green plant he had brought as a present. As with Perry Como singing, "I wonder who's kissing her now," punctuating the opening and closing scene of Michel and Lena's marital relationship, Michel's obsession with plants, like Perry Como's insistent question, subverts and controls Michel's position at the boundary of his own territory.

The men seem to need women, one woman, to counterbalance their acute sense of separation, alienation and aloneness. Nancy Chodorow arguea that such an emotional tendency in men is a basic factor in a male child's oedipal configuration.[4] The boy has to resolve his oedipal complex by repressing his attachment to his own mother and his own "femininity." He must do so more absolutely than a girl since a woman never totally renounces her affiliation to her mother in favor of her father. The girl does not have to give up a part of herself as does the boy, who originally was "one" with a woman in the preoedipal state. These asymmetric oedipal developments govern the configuration of the male personality. Male children develop social role preoccupations as they become heirs to social power and the symbolic order. The little boy's perception of maternal omnipotence forces him to locate, objectify, and contain his anxieties by developing or fitting into abstract male role expectations. He takes socially sanctioned roles of masculine self-protection, self-assertion and self-expansion. In short, he inherits and perpetuates a man's world, which separates itself from openness, contact and intimate union.

It is symptomatic that of the kinds of denial that ENTRE NOUS so cleverly makes visible that the two husbands use the colloquial French form of familiar address "tu," whereas the two women observe the more respectful, social "vous." Although Costa and Michel hardly meet each other unless on a contractual social basis, dealing with their wives or money, they "thee and thou" each other. But emotionally they only share an urge to master, an urge which remains unspoken but nevertheless exists in all their endeavors. Madeleine and Lena's relations on the other hand, are not based on terms of dominance and isolation but reflect instead a mutual feeling of respect, admiration, and kinship, despite their dissimilar histories. They use "vous" to dissemble. Until the last sequences, when the two women and their children share a house, their kinship is mostly latent. But as the $200 incident reveals, they have long had a sense of being "family" with each other. In German, Lena is often short for Madeleine, so the two even have the same name.

Madeleine is more impelled than Lena to transcend her domestic limits. Costa's chronic incapacity to support his family quickly pushes Madeleine to profit from her artistic skill. In contrast, Lena has lived through a comfortable child-rearing period free of financial worries. She is, furthermore, indebted to Michel for having saved her life by harrying her. Overall, Michel is a decent man.

Lena is rebuked whenever she hints to Michel that she would like to run a business. Seemingly, she has no real financial reason for entering men's social turf. She seems a bored housewife in search of a hobby. Thus Michel rebukes her, "But you don't even know how to count. You never wanted to work at the cash register whenever I asked you!"

In this sense, Madeleine corresponds to the archetypal dark-haired "black sheep," who comforts the blonde innocent and makes Lena know her own real worth, namely that Lena is crammed with untapped resources and desires. Madeleine's solitary job search in Paris fails. The women think they would like to create a societé[4] — which in French means society as well as corporation. Their economic dream takes form. It would let them go beyond their other labor — lover — and let them join socially as well as domestically.

The film's last section exaggerates all the tensions the two women have faced in order to reach out for each other. Madeleine has entered an intense period of depression after realizing Lena would not return to Paris to join her in business. "I knew I shouldn't have let you go back to Lyon," reads Madeline's voice-over from a letter as we see Lena busying herself for the grand opening of the boutique Michel has financed. At this point, even though Lena can at last gain independence and a sense of self-value by entering the public sphere, she still functions within the parameters of her "husband's" expectations. Michel clearly would deny both Lena's freedom and her real desires. When he can no longer deny Lena's feelings for Madeleine, Michel finally ransacks and destroys the new store. His fury is like a displaced rape, a desperate attempt to possess the body of his wife.

Now the two women begin living together, begin a communal life. In the last sequence, Michel still tries to win Lena back. He tests her resolution by asking, "And me, don't I matter?" She looks at him and simply replies, "I'm sorry, Michel." Now Lena's acts are her own, at last, but the filmmaker never denies the complexity of women's roles. Kurys presents the last sequence shot in the women's new "family" home from the girl child's viewpoint, full of oedipal longing for the rejected, ejected, beloved father. And it is that child's perspective which in the final credits the filmmaker claims as her own.


1. See Erving Goffean in Interaction Rituals: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior on expectations and obligations between psychiatrists and their patients. Lena plays the "patient" role to Michel.

2. See Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo on the classic distinction between power and authority. Woman, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview, edited by M.Z. Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974), p. 21

3. See Nancy Chodorow, "Oedipal Asymmetries and Heterosexual Knots," Social Problems, 23: No. 4 (April, 1976), pp. 454-467.

4. Lena has called her store Magdalena, a hybrid compound of both women's names, and the name of that redeemed prostitute in the New Testament.