Out of a Painful Family Breakup, Director Diane Kurys Fashioned the Year's Hot French Movie

updated 10/29/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Sad-eyed, she watches from the porch of a summerhouse as her soon-to-divorce parents fight their last fight. That painful tableau is the final frame of Entre Nous, the autobiographical French film that has catapulted director-screenwriter Diane Kurys into the inner circle of top-rated filmmakers. When Entre Nous opened in the U.S. earlier this year, critics compared Kurys with François Truffaut. Since then Entre Nous has drawn packed houses, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film and won a prize for the most popular French film shown in America this year. "Now I am at the top of the wave," Kurys says in her hurried English. "I hope the success will last for a while."

A drama about the household troubles and unexpressed lesbian relationship between two middle-class wives in the '50s, Entre Nous examines the fragmenting of families. But for Kurys, 35, it was a means of reversing the process. She decided to make Entre Nous as a way of reconciling her parents, however briefly, onscreen. "I put them back together in the film," she says, "to realize the dream I had as a child that they would be living together. I had to prove it was not my fault they divorced. I had to prove that the premises of the marriage were wrong, that it was a phony marriage." In life, as on the screen, Diane's mother left her husband in Lyons and moved to Paris with her two daughters to be near her best friend. Kurys even gave the screen characters the names of their real-life counterparts.

The production received her mother's stamp of approval. Before she began filming, Diane showed her mother, Lena, the set: an apartment she had re-created in '50s period furniture. It faithfully duplicated the original, down to the shape of the keys in the armoire and the tufted pink-and-white bedspreads in the children's room. While Diane was filming, her mother was suffering from cancer. Two weeks before she died, she watched a rough cut of the movie with her daughter. The director sat in the back of the screening room, behind her mother. "I didn't want to look at her," says Diane. "It was very, very painful. But she liked it because I was faithful to her goals and her life. I didn't betray her." At the Paris premiere her father, Michel, a retired clothing-store owner, gave his approval as well. "He said, 'It is all true, all true,' " says Diane.

Kurys was 6 years old when her parents, Russian immigrants, split up. For Diane, the pain of the divorce has mingled in a Proustian way with a pair of new brown shoes topped with white goatskin that she was given the day her parents separated. "My sister and I were going on vacation, and somebody said, 'But we won't come back.' I didn't care. I was looking at my shoes. I was so happy with them. It was so meaningless." For the next six years Diane ritualistically tucked her head under her pillow at bedtime. "It was like a prayer," she explains. " 'Please, please, I want them to be together again.' "

In Paris Kurys lived in a cold-water flat with her mother and her older sister, Nadia, now 39 and a physiotherapist. She accepted without question her mother's relationship with the ever-present Madeleine. "They couldn't spend a day without talking to each other on the telephone, laughing and telling little jokes," she says, "but they weren't lovers. I asked my mother, who said they tried but it didn't work."

At Christmas and Easter Diane and Nadia took the train to Lyons to visit their father. "He was standing there in the night with his hat and his coat as he is in Entre Nous. We went silently by car through the sleeping city, and he took us to the apartment. Half the furniture was taken. It was full of dust and newspapers. It was the apartment of a man who had been cut in half."

Like her mother, the teenage Diane was overtaken by wanderlust. In 1966 Kurys dropped out of the Lycée Jules Ferry and moved to Israel, where she worked on a kibbutz for a year. Back in France she took part in the 1968 student revolution. "It was the most exciting moment in my life," says Kurys. "I had this feeling of being young and in charge of the world and ready to destroy it all."

Instead she went into acting and built a minor career playing young blondes. "In an 18th-century play I was always the maid," says Diane. "It was very boring. I was unhappy as an actress." While on a U.S. tour with a bit part in Molière's The Miser, Diane decided to translate Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore into French. Encouraged by her efforts she began to write down some of her childhood memories. These remembrances of things past turned into her first prize-winning film, 1977's Peppermint Soda, about the adolescence of a younger sister in a two-daughter family. Its follow-up, Cocktail Molotov, took the heroine through the student riots of 1968 but received a drubbing from critics. Since Entre Nous, Hollywood has made overtures—there has been talk of a Diane Arbus biography starring Diane Keaton—but Kurys is holding out for total control.

Last summer Diane, who is unmarried, retreated to a rented villa in the south of France to write a new script, a love story about a young French woman and an older American man, which will be her first English-language film. For her the work is all-consuming. "After I finished Entre Nous, I had a big moment of anxiety," says Diane, "because I never know what I am going to do next. But I have gathered myself together, and I am starting to live. Right this minute I am very happy."

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