Twin Sisters: Ben Sombogaart’s WWII Tale of Two Sisters

In Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s new film, Bon Voyage, French film star Isabelle Adjani plays a movie diva caught in a swirl of personal and political intrigues at the start of the Second World War.  Equally gorgeous, younger star Virginie Ledoyen is cast as a student who becomes involved in a typically French romantic triangle.

Adjani and Ledoyen join a long line of luminously beautiful and talented French actresses, such as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Miou Miou, Emmanuelle Beart, Juliette Binoche, and Sandrine Bonnaire, all of whom have appeared at one time or another in their careers in major movies about women’s survival during the Nazi Occupation.

WWII is one of the most traumatic events in French history, a defining era that has continued to haunt filmmakers and audiences for over half a century.  Indeed, it’s hard to think of a French actress or French director of any stature who has not tackled this tumultuous era–usually through female-driven narratives.

Some of the high-profile films of this uniquely French sub-genre include Truffaut’s celebrated The Last Metro (1980), Diane Kurys’ Entre Nous (1983), Regis Wargnier’s Indochine (1992) and East-West (2000), all of which found greater success with French than American audiences.  Some of these films were nominated and even won the foreign-language Oscar.

While based on other source materials—usually best-selling novels– these films are also personal, allowing their directors to explore a pivotal period in their own youth, an era of turmoil that besieged and divided France along political and artistic lines.  Rappeneau (Cyrano de Bergerac with Gerard Depardieu) is the same age as Truffaut and other New Wave leaders; he was 8 year old when France was invaded.

One of the glories of French cinema, past and present, is its acceptance of women’s cultural centrality.  This explains the large number of intriguing films, mostly by by men, about female protagonists and female concerns, a category that embraces the oeuvre of Eric Rohmer, Godard, Chabrol, Techine, Patrice Leconte, and most recently Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool). The French cinema’s distinctly female orientation draws on a large reservoir of charismatic actresses who effortlessly hold an entire film on their pretty shoulders. What’s striking about these films is the trajectory of its glamorous heroines: They begin as privileged protagonists only to become humble and more ordinary as a result of the physical ordeal of survival.

Intimacy rather than scope has always been the strength of French cinema, whose  directors favor taut characterization and dramatic conflict over action.  Grounded in realism, the French cinema shows attentiveness to the presumably mundane aspects of life, those seemingly marginal and fleeting moments that help directors like Rappeneau express hidden truths of psychological life.   It might be a French specialty to construct intimate psychological worlds out of carefully chosen situations.   It’s hard to think of another national cinema that has shown such fascination with ambiguous behaviors, atmospheric milieus, and complex moral issues.

If the French cinematic sensibility is distinctly feminine, the American is decidedly masculine, and not just in action-adventures.  The American war film may be the most male-oriented genre.  There have been few stories about women—or families—surviving wars.  Cold Mountain, the recent romantic Civil War drama, is truly the exception, a throwback to the days of Scarlett O’Hara and Gone With the Wind.  One would have to go back to 1978’s The Deer Hunter and Coming Home to trace major Hollywood movies about women in war (in this case Vietnam): Meryl Streep in the former and Jane Fonda in the latter.

Political context matters: The fact that the United States has not fought a war within its borders since its bloody conflicts with Mexico might account for the omission.  Even during WWII, the best Hollywood could do for women and the home front is produce schmaltzy, middle-brow fare, such as MGM’s Mrs. Miniver (with Greer Garson), about a “typically” British family during the Blitz, and mogul David Selznick’s effort to outshine MGM, the mediocre and imitative Since You Went Away, starring Claudette Colbert.

While most of the new films are personal, they also exhibit a long cherished filmmaking mode, known as the Tradition of Quality, the well-crafted, well-acted story with high production values.   Pejoratively known as “le cinema de papa,” it’s the type of film against which the New Wave rebelled in 1959.  However, with the exception of Godard and Jacques Rivette, most of the New Wave leaders, including Truffaut, Rohmer, and Resnais, have resorted later in their career to more traditional storytelling, deserting the loose and spontaneous structures in favor of the “well-made” construction. The Truffaut of The 400 Blows or Shoot the Piano Player is not the Truffaut of  The Last Metro.

Some of the new French films are old-fashioned, adhering to classic storytelling with their linear structure and clear resolution.  Take Strays, the latest erotic melodrama from Andre Techine, one of France’s prominent filmmakers.  Based on a 1983 novel, The Boy With Grey Eyes,” Strayed explores the chaotic summer of 1940, when France was invaded by Germany.  Emmanulle Beart plays Odile, a young widow who flees Paris with her children for a safer life in the South.  When Germans bomb the roads, the family runs into the woods, where they encounter Yvan, a fiercefully independent and reckless adolescent, who charms the entire family, including Odile’s son, who’s only four years younger than him. The fugitives stumble into a large deserted house, where they engage in an idyllic existence away from the War, with Odile falling for the hoodlum.

Critics have lamented “the disappearance of the middle” from mainstream Hollywood in the 1970s–Jaws is considered to be the turning point.  For decades, there were no high or low ends in American industry, just one large middle terrain of narrative and character-driven films in which Capra’s comedies, Warner’s gangsters, Minnelli’s musicals, and Ford’s Westerns co-existed.  Nowadays, the tyranny of the blockbuster almost dictates the making of large-scale effects-laden event movies.  With few exceptions (Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element), the French cinema is not paralyzed by Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, which stifles the making of personal films, and largely explains the emergence of American indies as a viable force to fill that void.

The Oscars seem to favor these uplifting humanistic sagas, as manifest in their overrepresentation in the foreign-language category.  Stories about WWII and the Holocaust have also dominated the documentary Oscars. Last year, the foreign-language Oscar went to a German film, Nowhere in Africa, Caroline Fink’s survival tale of a Jewish family that flees Nazi Germany in 1938 and lands in rural Africa.

This year, at least half a dozen submissions for foreign Oscar consideration concerned women in various wars.  We may be witnessing a cycle of rather traditional if enjoyable humanistic sagas that places emphasis on strong narratives, easily identifiable characters, and glossy production values. Though nominated for 11 Cesars (French Oscar), Bon Voyage didn’t make the Academy’s final list.   However, two of the five contenders this year belong to that genre:  Twin Sisters from the Netherlands, which Miramax will release in August, and the Czech Republic’s Zelary, to be distributed by Menemsha.

Ondrej Trojan’s Zelary juxtaposes a resilient urban woman with a rural man during WWII.  Based on Kveta Legatova’s fact-inspired novella, the story is set in 1942, during the Nazi occupation.  Eliska (Anna Geislerova) works as nurse in a city hospital with her lover-surgeon Littner. Both are riskily involved in the resistance movement. When Littner’s cover is blown, he’s forced to flee, and Eliska is sent to the Moravian countryside to live with Joseph, a man brought to the hospital for a swimming accident. Using a fictitious name, Eliska travels with Joseph to the remote village of Zelary.   A traditional melodrama ensues, and over the next two years, the woodsman and the educated woman form a complex bond that forces them to regain new sets of values.

Ben Sombogaart’s Twin Sisters is based on Tessa de Loo’s acclaimed book, which broke records in Germany and Holland.  Set during WWII, it tells the intimate yet epic story of the different paths taken by twins separated at early age after their parents’ death.   In the deftly constructed adaptation, which begins in 1925 and spans half a century, the impact of social conditioning in shaping individual personalities becomes a central concern. While Anna remains in Germany, where she’s put to work on her abusive uncle’s farm, sickly sister Lotte is sent to the Netherlands home of relatives and given proper education. The women’s vastly different socialization leads them to different socio-political directions. College-educated Lotte marries a Jew, whereas Anna becomes the war bride of an Austrian officer.  The film culminates with a chance meeting and turbulent reunion of the twins at a spa half a century later.

All of these films are handsomely mounted and solidly acted, flaunting the kind of emotional and historical sweep that appeal to older viewers (the typical Academy voters).  However, despite thematic resemblances, their visual style and tone are divergent.  One of the most effective genres in relating such tales is the taut suspenser and erotically charged melodrama, as evident in The Last Metro, Entre Nous, and Strayed, or the straightforward dramatic narrative, like Zelary and Twin Sisters

In contrast, Bon Voyage works best as a high style sophisticated farce, blending murderous intrigues, scientific secrets, and love affairs, in which politicians, socialites, scientists and divas hobnob with students and jailbirds.  That many French films assume the comedic mode may be a result of the French definition of comedy, which reflects a  philosophical attitude toward life.  In French, the word comedie—the theater Comedie Francaise, Balzac’s novel La Comedie Humaine—has broader meanings than in English, where its connotations are restricted to humor and laughter. Hence, the model for Rappeneau’s farce is Renoir’s prophetic classic The Rules of the Game, released within weeks after the War broke out.   The two films are set almost at the same historical time, and if in Renoir’s film, a gallery of colorful characters gathers in the Coliniere chateau, in Rappeneau’s, the locale for his flamboyant denizens is Bordeaux’ posh Hotel Splendide.