Sandrine Kiberlain’s feature debut, Une jeune fille qui va bien (A Radiant Girl), is the story of an aspiring Parisian actress living under the Nazi occupation.
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Now that we’ve been telling (fictional) holocaust stories on film for over thirty years, filmmakers today are keen to pull audiences out of their complacency and familiarity with these stories: the reaction they want is not, “Yes, it’s sad for the Jews and the gays,” but “Dear god, that could have been me.” Prejudice comes as a surprise. With the rise of fascism around the world, recent films about WWII and fascism have increasingly elided the distance between past and present.
Christian Petzold’s Transit (2018), about a concentration camp survivor trying to leave Marseille before the Nazis arrive, never explicitly refers to Nazis or Jews — we hear mostly of ‘the fascists — but it does reference particular historic events from WWII (the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup), features costumes that have 1940s look but would be just at home in the 21st century, and even modern cars. Dominik Graf’s Fabian: Going to the Dogs (2021) begins with a tracking shot inside a modern day Berlin metro station, which follows passengers up the stairs, and onto the street, now transformed into the 1930s — almost imperceptibly so. The clothes worn would be equally at home in 1932 as 2021, but brownshirts pass down the street, and posters for the Nazis plaster the walls by the stairs up to the street. In both films, the actors maintain modern mannerisms and accents, and their dialogue never reads as ‘period’. The implication is clear: they could be us; their stories could be now.
Sandrine Kiberlain’s feature debut, Une jeune fille qui va bien (A Radiant Girl), takes this conflation of past and present one step further. It’s not until several minutes into the film that we even realise it’s not set in present day, but in 1942, during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Indeed, most of the events in the film — falling in love, auditioning for drama school, hanging out with friends — play out just as they would today. Like in Transit, the characters wear clothes with touches of 1940s fashion, but that could just as easily be at home in the present day. The eponymous ‘jeune fille’, Irène (Rebecca Marder of the Comédie Française), wears classic staples in primary colours and solids: a blue wool blazer, a red scarf, and a brown leather purse with a shoulder strap.
In Une jeune fille qui va bien, The Nazis are only ever referred to as ‘them’. No swastikas appear on screen. But their influence is seen and felt: in the red “Juive” stamped on the characters’ identity papers, and later, the yellow star of David sewn into their clothing. Unlike Transit and Fabian: Going to the Dogs, Une jeune fille qui va bien isn’t really about the Nazi occupation; instead, it’s a standard coming-of-age story of a Jewish girl told against the backdrop of the Vichy state, where its influences encroach more and more on her life. It’s why the French title — which translates to “A young girl who is doing well” — is much more à propos than the English one: things are going well for Irène, until they aren’t. The increasing extent of the psychological toll of the occupation is gradual; before Irène realises it, it’s too late.
Kiberlain regularly reveals to us more about the political situation than Irène notices through glimpses into other characters’ perspectives. Plus, our own historical hindsight adds to our dread for Irène’s future. Early in Une jeune fille qui va bien (A Radiant Girl), Kiberlain has us drop in on Irène’s father and grandmother arguing about whether to surrender their identification papers to have the government-ordered ‘Jew’ stamped in red. Irène overhears them arguing but not what they’re fighting about, so she continues to spend her days preparing for her drama school audition. But when she leaves the house that day with a chic red scarf around her neck, what to her is a fashion statement reads to us as marking herself as ‘Jew’ in flashing lights. During the day, Irène hangs out with her actor friends, rehearsing, as they all prepare for their drama school auditions. At night, she works as an usher at the theatre and goes on dates. She becomes infatuated with the young doctor and gets him to help her choose glasses she doesn’t need, just as an excuse to see him again.
Marder is a radiant actress, her face an open book. She plays Irène as a young woman with joie de vivre and excitement, and perhaps some wilful blindness about the political situation around her. She squabbles with and shares romantic wisdom with her brother (Anthony Bajon), confides in her grandmother (Françoise Widhoff) about her dreams and crushes, and has an easy affection with her father (André Marcon), whom she regularly meets at his work for lunches. When her best friend (Ben Attal) suddenly disappears without a trace, she doesn’t think twice about its potential implications until weeks have passed. In short, Marder’s Irène operates like any other teenager in a coming-of-age story, unaware that hers has an expiration date.
Slowly but surely, though, Kiberlain reveals the encroachments on Irène’s freedom; she’s usually the last one to realise their significance. Her father is convinced that if the family plays by ‘their’ rules, nothing bad will happen because they’re not just Jews, but French. Her grandmother disagrees, but eventually concedes to his wishes. It’s not until Irène actually sees her ID card with ‘Jew’ stamped on it in red that she visibly recoils with shock. Her friends don’t treat her differently, but she’s starting to process it. Still, things continue as normal. Each encroachment plays out similarly drama-free, with resigned acceptance. When the family have to surrender their ties to the outside world — their bikes, their radio, their phone — Kiberlain shoots Irène and her grandmother in a wide shot, packing up these items with a box and string. In the days that follow, the missing items seem more of an inconvenience than a violation of liberty, like when Irène comes home late one night without having been able to call home to allay her father’s worries.
Part of what differentiates Une jeune fille qui va bien from other holocaust dramas is that Kiberlain is less interested in telegraphing future harm than she is in showing the psychological impacts of even small losses of civil liberties. One day, Irène and her family suddenly have yellow Stars of David sewed onto their coats, and they are immediately treated differently by the people around them. Marder shows Irène’s discomfort with the public mark of her Jewishness by attempting to cover the star whenever she can: hiding it behind books, folded arms, or folding her jacket up indoors. In one key scene, Irène visits her father for lunch, and Kiberlain shoots the pair from behind, sitting on a bench, in a wide shot, so that we can’t see the yellow stars they’re wearing; their relationship remains unchanged. The degree to which the yellow star has stood out in previous scenes, especially against Irène’s blue blazer, makes its absence here particularly notable. In the way Kiberlain lets these later scenes play out in long takes, we increasingly feel how stolen these moments are, and how few moments of happiness remain.
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