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In his poem Musee des Beaux Arts, W.H. Auden used a Brueghel painting of Icarus falling from the sky to explain that the old masters understood something important about tragedy: “it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” The nature of storytelling in general and movies in particular is that the focus is on the big, exciting moments. But, as Auden told us, even the biggest, most cataclysmic events are unimportant, overlooked, and ignored by people going about their daily lives. Until that is no longer possible. Like last year’s stunning directorial debut from Charlotte Wells, “Aftersun,” "A Radiant Girl" rewards careful attention. It is deceptively specific about the small moments of vital importance to the people involved but fleeting quotidian details in the grand scheme. That is, until the devastating last few seconds when the events are seen with the hindsight of consequence.
“A Radiant Girl” is the story of a young woman at that liminal stage in life when it seems that infinite possibilities stretch into the future. We know her possibilities are about to disappear because we see who and where, and when she is: A Jewish girl in Paris in 1942. Like her father and grandmother, we see the warning signs making it even more heart-wrenching to see how hopeful and happy she is. The film's period details are understated, with very little emphasis on the cars or the technology that separates us from the past. Costume designer Emmanuelle Youchnovski's designs are near-timeless. The costumes never seem retro, increasing our sense of immediacy and connection. They could almost be seen on the streets today, like the classic blazer Irène wears for her job. We barely notice it, until near the end of the film when she turns and we see the jacket now has a yellow star.
“Radiant” is the right word to describe Rebecca Marder as Irène, an aspiring actress on the brink of first love. From her first seconds on-screen, we are immediately entranced by her open, trusting, vulnerable face. At first, it seems we are hearing her as herself, asking what we think of her, and accepting flowers and flowery words from a lover. But these are lines she's preparing for an audition. The archaic word “bethink” is a clue. The tender love scene she is rehearsing is from L'Épreuve is a 1740 play by Pierre de Marivaux. Irène wants to study acting at the conservatory.
Irène lives with her increasingly worried father, André (André Marcon), her feisty and devoted grandmother Marceline (Françoise Widhoff), and her musician brother Igor (Anthony Bajon). André pleads with the conservatory officials to classify Irène as half-Jewish, hoping she will not be disqualified from applying. Marceline wants to protest being forced to have big, red letters spelling out “Jew” on her identification card. And Igor and Irène continue to exchange the kinds of bratty insults that remind us they are not far from childhood.
When Irène’s scene partner and possible love interest disappears, her primary concern is finding a replacement for her audition, though it has to be another female student because the men are suddenly hard to find. In the meantime, she sees a doctor about her fainting spells and develops a crush on his handsome assistant.
Writer/director Sandrine Kiberlain is an actress, and she understands the world of the theater, and the way young aspiring actors see the world as a stage, blurring the line between a story and reality. Irène easily “acts” even when she's not on stage, pretending not to be able to read the eye chart to spend more time with the doctor’s assistant, creating a small but theatrical birthday surprise for her father. She faints in character, but she also faints in real life. Kiberlain captures the small details as the young performers prepare for their auditions and wait for the results.
Most Holocaust dramas show us the trains, the barbed wire, and the starving prisoners. This movie shows us what happened before, making the story real by making us identify with the people who were lost.
Now playing in theaters.
Rebecca Marder as Irène
Ben Attal as Jo
India Hair as Viviane
André Marcon as André
Anthony Bajon as Igor
Florence Viala as Josiane
Françoise Widhoff as Marceline
Cyril Metzger as Jacques
Jean Chevalier as Gilbert