In telling the story of a friendship between two young Frenchwomen, Mina Tannenbaum tells the story of all friendships. A friendship is a living thing that reflects the quality of care it's given and the temper of the times — good, bad, or usually both — in which it joins two people. Like all living things, friendships have beginnings and endings, but most of us are in as much denial about the deaths of friendships as we are about the deaths of our friends themselves. Mina Tannenbaum confronts this denial with brilliant remorselessness; its final somber images are too dearly earned to be washed away by tears, yet the movie is too warm and rich to be sad.
The two main characters — Mina Tannenbaum (Romane Bohringer) and Ethel Benegui (Elsa Zylberstein) — meet as little girls (played by another pair of actresses) at a ballet class in Paris in the late 1960s. Mina, behind a pair of heavy-framed spectacles, bristles with an edgy intelligence that fills the more ordinary children with hostile curiosity, while Ethel, dumpy and plain, is the kind of girl who sits with painful dignity near the dance floor at a bar mitzvah because no boy chooses her for a partner.
Misfits have a way of finding each other and bonding, and the two girls become inseparable. They're also both Jewish, a detail that writer/director Martine Dugowson handles with a light touch. The girls' Jewishness certainly affects their lives — it's part of their basic bond, and Ethel's mother, in particular, speaks dismissively of “goys” in warning her daughter not to take up with them — but the movie sounds its Jewish notes smoothly, as chords beneath its universal melodies.
The girls' dating troubles begin early, with difficult first loves driven by wants, fears, and miscues that cross every cultural boundary. Mina develops an interest in Franeois (Nils Tavernier), a handsome student in her painting class. But her self-conscious shyness is like a straitjacket, and when they stiffly sit together in a little cafe, the conversation barely proceeds beyond remarks about the excellence of the coffee.
Ethel, meanwhile, meets a raffish pianist named Didier (Stephane Slima). Their connection is more frankly erotic, and after a couple of missed chances, Ethel finds herself in bed with him at his place as he struggles to undo her clothes. She manages to escape, but then regrets her waffling. When, days later, she returns to his building, she looks down dizzily from the top of a spiral staircase as Didier drags another girl home.
Luckily none of this matters, because she has Mina, and Mina has her. They can sit side by side on a couch saying nothing in particular and still draw the emotional sustenance they need from one another. There are times when the camera almost wants them to kiss — to express the truth about what they feel for one another — but maybe the simple physical closeness is enough. The fact that they're not lesbians, that they're fully drawn to one another without knowing it or having the means to explore it, adds a poignant charge to their intimacy.
Mina's is a beautiful face, engaging in its shapely aloofness. It's an artist's face, and in her young adulthood she becomes a painter. She also trades in the spectacles for contacts, and it's as if a model has emerged from behind a veil. But she never understands how lovely she is; her self-image — of a homely girl who never fits in — is fixed. She meets a gallery owner, Jacques (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey), who likes her work and apparently her, but their dealings with each other are smolderingly complicated.
Ethel, who has always lacked Mina's talent, ambition, and pretension, wheedles her way into a job as a hack journalist, writing stories about peoples' love lives. She dyes her hair blond (“You've burned your hair,” her mother notes with a frown), but she still worries about her “Jewish girl” profile. When she's with potential husbands, she walks beside them so that they can't see the outline of her nose.
Ethel wants to get married. She can't match Mina's resolute individuality or volatile genius; she's ordinary, and she knows it. She remains within the orbit of her parents as Mina does not, and when her mother falls ill she knows she must find someone while there's still time to make the old woman happy.
A personal ad leads to a “casting call” at a cafe, where potential suitors appear onscreen as a succession of talking heads. (One man says, “I'm not Jewish, is that a problem?” Another is a butcher whose fidgety persistence borders on pathology.) Making a surprise appearance is Jacques, who suavely spells out the reasons he's the perfect choice. True, he's not a doctor, but he's well-off and presentable; soon it's a done deal.
Except that Mina, on hearing the news, explodes in a fireball of grief and rage. “You know I love him!” she shrieks at the astonished Ethel, who didn't know. Their catfight ends in Ethel's angry leave-taking, and when the door slams shut, Mina sees that her boyfriend, Serge (Eric Defosse), has witnessed the entire spectacle — including her passionate declaration that she's in love with another man. Serge leaves too, and Mina ends up crumpled and weeping on the floor, as if a bomb had just gone off in the apartment. In a matter of seconds her entire life has collapsed.
The perfect silence that falls between Mina and Ethel takes on a life of its own, and it continues even when neither one of them can quite remember why they stopped speaking. Life goes on, except for Mina, who can no longer paint and must make ends meet as a copyist, doing knockoffs of Monets and Cezannes. She's brave and honest, but she's also brittle and vulnerable in a way the others cannot see; she's too proud to show them. She subsists in the ruins of her life like a squatter in a bombed-out warehouse — until one day she bumps into Ethel on the street, pushing a baby carriage.
If one of the movie's most disturbing themes is the way people abandon intimacies, another is its depiction of embers that never grow entirely cold. Not, anyway, until death arrives. As a filmmaker, Martine Dugowson is preoccupied with life, and she skillfully keeps morbidity out of her movie without denying that death awaits its turn. No one survives being human — but meantime, l'chaim.
Mina Tannenbaum opens Fri, Sept. 8, at the Roxie in