‘A Radiant Girl’ Review: Sandrine Kiberlain’s Assured Feature Explores a French Jewish Family’s Summer of ’42
The French screen star makes the move to writer-director with a coming-of-age drama set in Paris during the Nazi occupation.
Irene, the vibrant center of Sandrine Kiberlain's impressive debut feature, is indeed radiant. Beaming with youth, she's an 18-year-old aspiring actor, awakened to first love and to the vision of who she wants to be. Irene is also Jewish, living with her family in occupied Paris, and the awful paradox of her blossoming during the summer of '42 while a hateful and murderous world is closing in is suggested by the movie's original title, Une Jeune Fille Qui Va Bien: She's "a young girl who's doing just fine." Her zest for life sustains her, and it's also a dangerous kind of tunnel vision.
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Played to awkward/graceful perfection by Rebecca Marder, in her first lead film role, Irene is almost always in exuberant motion, well captured by Guillaume Schiffman's nimble, unobtrusive cinematography. When the camera lingers for a moment on her anklets and oxfords, it's a poignant reminder of how young and inexperienced she still is. And when, late in the film, Irene must begin wearing a yellow Star of David on her blazer, her gait is no less jaunty.
A Radiant Girl
A Radiant Girl
Her refusal to be bowed recalls a line from The Journal of Helene Berr, one of the sources writer-director Kiberlain cites: "I held my head high," the Sorbonne student wrote of her first day wearing the Nazi-mandated star. But there's an awareness, a sense of purpose in the attitude of Berr, who was a few years older than the fictional Irene; she "looked people so straight in the eye they turned away." The hero of A Radiant Girl knows what's going on in her city and yet, riding her own giddy trajectory, she feels invulnerable.
Kiberlain, a prolific actor perhaps best known to international audiences for her memorable turns in Mademoiselle Chambon and Polisse, has assembled a superb cast to bring her concise and elegant screenplay to life, and she never loses focus on her characters and their interactions, both comic and charged with muted terror.
The movie is at once a family drama, a coming-of-age romance and, not least, a valentine to theater kids. Irene's love of acting is the drive to engage and play and create -- to live. One of her more effusive classmates, Lena (Stephanie Aflalo), baffles the other girls with her free-spirited gushing; she might be a future dance movement therapist. Gearing up for her conservatory audition, Irene is consumed with Marivaux's L'Epreuve, and when Jo (Ben Attal), her devoted scene partner and friend, goes missing, she enlists classmate Viviane (India Hair) to take his place, inspiring some antic boy/girl vamping.
When she isn't rehearsing or working as an usher at a theater presenting Moliere's Don Juan, Irene directs her family in scenes in the living room, the most enthusiastic participant being Marceline, her grandmother, confidant and adviser (Francoise Widhoff, a producer and editor exuding mischief and wisdom in a rare onscreen role). Swooping into the apartment high on Marivaux or Moliere, Irene is oblivious to the anxiety that's quietly gripping the adults.=
Her father, Andre (an understated and deeply affecting Andre Marcon), is a chain-smoking accountant who's apparently widowed -- Kiberlain doesn't stoop to explication posing as dialogue -- and he's weighing the urgency of a new decree requiring Jewish citizens to have their IDs stamped with a big red "Juif." Noting that a Polish Jewish neighbor has been arrested, he tells his daughter, with naivete or optimism, perhaps the same thing, that their being French will protect them. "We just need to follow the rules," he says, while Marceline tries to short-circuit his compliance.
On the romance front, older brother Igor (Anthony Bajon), a math student with an artistic streak as a flautist, gives Irene tips on flirting but is less of an expert than he pretends, deluding himself about his crush, Heloise (Lea Rostain). With Marceline's help, Irene tries to make sense of her faltering dates with Gilbert (Jean Chevalier), lessons in romantic ineptitude. But it's love at first blush between her and Jacques (a charismatic Cyril Metzger), assistant to the doctor (Jerome Deschamps) who's trying to figure out the cause of her dizzy spells.
Adolescent fluster replaces Irene's usual self-confidence, but she's on her game enough to pretend that she can't read the eye chart, ensuring a repeat visit to the medical office -- and guaranteeing that she'll be prescribed a pair of glasses that blur her vision. In other hands, such a tidy metaphor would likely land with a thud, but Kiberlain doesn't overplay the gambit; she lets the emotional underpinning detonate and keeps moving.
The most haunting aspect of the film is its depiction of everyday accommodations to increasingly outrageous and malevolent dictates. The star-shaped badges are common knowledge these days, but it's jarring to see Paris' Jews obeying orders to turn in their telephones and bicycles -- "anything that connects us to the outside world," as one character puts it -- and somehow holding on to the hope that their possessions will be returned.
Through an affecting mix of comedy, romance and drama, A Radiant Girl sounds a warning about the perils of not looking directly at tough realities. And yet it's so alive from moment to moment, so finely attuned to the emotional lives of its characters, that it never feels like a history lesson dressed up as narrative. A stripped-down aesthetic sensibility is a key strength: Emmanuelle Youchnovski's costumes and Katia Wyszkop's production design reflect the era, but the film avoids capital-P period trappings. While the diegetic music is period-appropriate, the soundtrack uses contemporary compositions -- Philip Glass, the Tom Waits song "All the World Is Green" -- not as ostentatious meta device but, rather, a low-key affirmation of the story's immediacy.
Kiberlain understands secular, or "cultural," Judaism, sweetly illustrated in the melange of Sabbath dinner and Seder that the family shares with a neighbor, Josiane (Florence Viala), who has begun a gentle flirtation with Andre. Marceline cherishes the rituals but has no use for orthodoxy or conventional religion. Being playful and serious, she tells her granddaughter, "You annoy me with your prayers." Then she adds an assertion that's filled with cheerful strength -- but also, given the tightening vise shaping their days, marked by a naivete to match that of Andre, the son-in-law she views as fearful. "In life," she tells the lovestruck Irene, "we decide everything."