Review: La promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn)

When you look at the life of French novelist Romain Gary, there are a lot of incidental notes that could make for fascinating sidetrips by themselves. One is that he is the only French writer to have ever won the Goncourt Prize twice under two different names, which, as it happens, is the only way you can win the Goncourt twice since French law prohibits the same writer winning it more than once. The other incidental I want to know more about is the story behind Gary cowriting the script for The Longest Day, an English language movie that, until Saving Private Ryan, was the most memorable film ever made about D-Day. Gary’s take on the war is especially valuable if you take his memoir, Promise at Dawn, for what it says it is. Personally, I have my doubts, since so much of what happens in the story is almost beyond belief, but maybe that’s just a function of director Eric Barbier’s style of storytelling.

He frames it within a larger story of Gary (Pierre Niney), already a bestselling author and married to British editor Lesley Blanch (Catherine Mc Cormack), in Mexico in the 1950s during the Day of the Dead festivities when he develops a headache he thinks will be the death of him. A lifelong hypochondriac, Gary’s wails of suffering are indulged by Blanch who hires a cab to take them three hours to a hospital in Mexico City, and during the ride she reads the manuscript of his memoir. This scene seems gratuitous, but it does set up the vital premise that Gary is an obsessive writer, a man who can scribble under the most trying of circumstances.

Those circumstances were mostly provided by his mother, Nina Kacew (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a Polish Jew who, according to her, gave up a promising career as an actress in Russia to raise Romain on her own. And she doesn’t just raise Romain. She instills in him an ambition to become, first, a French ambassador and, second (and at the same time), the greatest writer in the French language. When Romain was a little boy, Nina made her living selling hats to snobby women (read: anti-Semites) in the city of Vilnius, but once she had the chance she dragged her son to Nice, where she manages a hotel while pushing Romain to ignore all other considerations except writing.

Thanks mainly to Gainsbourg’s fiercely weird portrait, Barbier’s style makes sense in these formative scenes, but once Romain sets off on his own, first to Paris for an education, then to England and North Africa to fight for the free French after the German invasion, it becomes less credible as a means of telling what amounts to a ripping yarn. The main thrust of the theme is that Nina’s overbearing childrearing technique has had its desired effect, and while Romain writes his ass off in any situation, all the while enduring rejection letter after rejection letter, he suffers mightily from neuroses of inadequacy that affects both his sexual performance (though he seems to have plenty of partners with which to prove that inadequacy in slapstick fashion) and his fitness for battle, not to mention life’s normal vicissitudes. Nevertheless, the film highlights a number of anecdotes each of which would have made The Longest Day even more exciting than it actually was, including a nearly impossible mid-flight, mid-battle sequence in which bombardier Romain talks the blinded pilot of his stricken bomber to a bumpy but safe landing.

But it’s the perfect and perfectly melodramatic ending that finally gives the viewer pause—no way it could have happened this way, you think. It’s a finale worthy of William Styron, a contemporary of Gary’s who also suffered from bouts of delusional depression. Unlike Styron, however, Gary died from suicide, which adds a certain verisimilitude to Niney’s equally overcharged performance. It’s a big story about a big theme, so even for a memoir it probably has a right to be a bit over the top.

In French and Polish. Opens Jan. 31 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

La promesse de l’aube home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017-Jericho-Pathe Production-TF1 Films Production-Nexus Factory-Umedia

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