A Jewish teenager dreams of acting and romance and the future, and she lives in Nazi-occupied Paris.
A Radiant Girl, the first feature written and directed by the veteran French actress Sandrine Kiberlain, opens with a montage of student actors practicing a scene from a play by Marivaux. Then we focus on one actress, 19-year-old Irène, played by Rebecca Marder, practicing that scene with a young man. Soon we can tell that she is the title character—excited by the theater and acting, intensely alive, mischievous, romantic, whip-smart, and in love with being in love.
If you were to watch the film knowing nothing about it (which most people don’t do, and if you want to do that, stop listening now), you’d see that we’re apparently in Paris, and although we don’t notice any phones or even televisions, there are zero shots of automobile traffic in the film—perhaps the budget wouldn’t allow for that, but the effect is to limit every aspect of this young woman’s life to private events and not historical ones. Until, about twenty minutes in, a comment in a brief scene reveals that we must be in German-occupied Paris during the Second World War. And the same comment also reveals that Irène and her family are Jewish.
Part of why this is so effective is that being Jewish isn’t some obvious identity marker for the family, but only a part of their overall character, which would include being French, being middle class, educated, secular (in this case), and a host of other more personal details. Irène’s theater class, her joyful obsession with boys and romance, and her behavior in her family, is not different from any non-Jewish teenage girl in essentials, although one must add that she is particularly bright, passionate, and beautiful. A Radiant Girl, as the title says, indeed.
Kiberlain has been a prominent actress since 1986, but a first directing job on a film will usually still have some rookie mistakes. For instance, here there are two or three anachronistic songs on the soundtrack, including one by Tom Waits, that however great they are as songs, took me out of the story for a bit. One big thing she got right, though, is the casting of, and directing of, the performance of Rebecca Marder, who has such marvelous variety of expression, and can play witty and naïve and hurt and, well, radiant, to perfection.
The film doesn’t show any trains or camps. It’s about before that, and the richness and the love, and the imagining, and the everyday ups and downs of the life before. We are struck by all that was lost. By the future that was taken away. By millions of people experiencing the destruction of everything they love, an unimaginable trauma occurring in their present life, a terror shattering the mind and heart. We don’t see any of this in the film, but we know it’s coming, and the knowledge hits us in a different way when we witness the life of one girl whose hope and desire for life is reflected in the eyes of those who love her. Kiberlain introduces the hint of a uniform in the final shot, but we don’t need to see more any more. In A Radiant Girl we are left only with the memory of what was irrevocably taken from us, with a large space for grief and the knowledge of never again.