Saturday, September 7, 2019

This time they got it right! Éric Barbier's fine film of Romain Gary's PROMISE AT DAWN

Back in 1970 director/adaptor Jules Dassin, together with stars Melina Mercouri and Assaf Dayan, took a crack at filming for the first time Romain Gary's autobiographical novel, Promise at Dawn. The results were "iffy," despite some very good scenes/moments now and again, with the can't-help-it-if-I'm-glamorous Ms Mercouri hamming it up some, as ever, even as the good-looking but talent-challenged Dayan kept threatening to disappear into the wallpaper.

The very good news this week is that the second-time-round version of the late M. Gary's "memoir" (or "autobiographical novel," as it is also known) is so much better that comparisons between the first film and the new PROMISE AT DAWN are pretty much pointless.

As adapted and directed by Éric Barbier (shown right) -- whose earlier, darkly pleasant heist film The Last Diamond certainly did not prepare me for how fine a film this one is -- the movie adheres pretty closely as best I can recall to Gary's original, while bringing to wonderful life and delight the mother and son characters that make up this unusual, alternately hilarious and moving tale.

The Russian/Polish mom is played with her usual command of everything from steely subtlety to off-the-rails humor and craziness by the splendid Charlotte Gainsbourg (above, and on poster, top), while her doted-upon offspring is handled by three excellent actors: Pawel Puchalski (below, left, as the young Romain),

Némo Schiffman (below, right) in the adolescent segment,

and finally by the terrific Pierre Niney below, left, and further below, (from Frantz and two extraordinary performances back in 2011), who plays Romain as both a young man and adult.

M. Niney and Ms Gainsbourg work together beautifully, playing off each other with understanding and great skill to turn this sometimes unsettling but more often hilarious and moving mother-son relationship into something unforgettable.

The movie moves from darkest, anti-Semitic Poland to the sun-speckled shore of Nice, from Paris to wartime London and Africa, and all the while that mother-son bond continues to grow, even as our Romain is fucking the daylights out of various young things in various locations. No matter: His heart (and ours) belongs to mommy.

Promise at Dawn is that most unusual art/mainstream movie that begins well, gets even better along the way, and then goes out with the kind of build-up and bang that should leave you surprised, smiling and maybe holding back, if not wiping away, a tear. Is the movie all that believable, and is most of what M. Gary told us even true? Probably not. But my god, did this guy know how to tell a whopping good story!

All the movie's technical aspects are first rate -- production and set design, cinematography, music, the works -- and supporting performances are as good, though much smaller (Jean-Pierre Darroussin's is especially grand), as those of the two leads.

Released here in the USA by Menemsha Films, Promise at Dawn opened this Friday, September 6, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and should hit other cities soon, I would hope. Click here and scroll down to view any additional/upcoming playdates, cities and theaters.

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