Games of Hate & Chance: Kiberlain Curates Characterization with Tragic Wartime Portrait
In the eye of a swiftly gathering storm in the summer of 1942, when German-occupied France began to experience the disastrous reality of the Nazi party, a young French Jewish woman finds herself on the cusp of adulthood in Sandrine Kiberlain’s handsome directorial debut Une jeune fille qui va bien (A Radiant Girl). Written by the actor, who is a renowned French screen presence, Kiberlain follows in the footsteps of her own teen daughter Suzanne Lindon, whose 2020 directorial debut Spring Blossom also featured Rebecca Marder, this time the titular central force in a strong (if familiar) portrait of a vibrant life cut short by the onslaught of Hitler.
Interestingly removed from the encroaching fate of things to come as told through the eyes of a happy-go-lucky girl sheltered by her guardians and distracted by her obsessive educational aspirations, the potency of Kiberlain’s treatment is its ability to pull focus on her trajectory despite our sickly knowledge of the inevitable.
It’s summer in 1942 and 19-year-old Irene (Rebecca Marder) has big dreams of landing a position at a conservatory in the coming fall. Consumed with honing her craft as she prepares a scene from Marivaux for her big audition, she finds herself distracted by the attentions of boys she either doesn’t like or is instantly smitten with. Prone to fainting spells, which she plans to utilize to her advantage in the audition, nothing matters more to her future than her pursuits as a thespian. However, there are uncomfortable rumblings at home, where her father (Andre Marcon) and grandmother (Francoise Widhoff) argue quietly about new requirements to have their passports stamped to reflect their Jewish heritage. While her father holds out hope for Irene and her brother’s (Anthony Bajon) ability to overcome the Anti-Semitism sweeping France considering they’re only half Jewish, none of them are aware of just how little time they have left.
As Irene, Rebecca Marder is a fresh-faced wonder, channeling a joyful and unique personality who seems poised for fame (or notoriety). Having recently appeared alongside Isabelle Huppert in Mama Weed (2020), her performance here should situate her as a notable go-to ingenue. Lost in her dreams of Don Juan and Marivaux as she prepares under increasingly labored conditions for an audition to a notable acting conservatory, Kiberlain sandwiches her between supportive relatives, generous friends, and charming love interests. Only Andre Marcon’s downbeat turn as her anxious father reminds us of the reality the family (and much of France) seems to be ignoring, despite several peripheral characters mysteriously leaving on travel never to return. Francoise Widhoff (formerly notable as an editor and producer who also appeared in Spring Blossom) steals all her sequences with Marder as the kind, patient, chain-smoking grandmother who can read the writing on the wall but is powerless to do anything.
Also featuring Anthony Bajon (The Prayer, 2018) as a mostly affable (perhaps symbiotic) older brother, Kiberlain cherry picked a cast of Comedie-Francaise alums, which assists the film’s notable theatrical underpinnings. Like a reimagining of the Frank family’s day-to-day world before it was swiftly uprooted, like millions, in waves, there’s a ferocious terror forever on the sidelines of A Radiant Girl, which culminates in a surprisingly troubling final shot considering we know where Irene’s future is headed.
Period details are adeptly handled in DP Guillaume Schiffman’s frames, though perhaps less notably so than in titles like The Artist (2011) or Populaire (2012). All in all, Kiberlain presents an adeptly conceived character portrait contained in just the right way to remain chillingly effective and memorable.
Reviewed at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival July 8th – Critics’ Week – Special Screening. 98 Mins.