[16 September 2007]
Life in the aftermath of the liberation of France was a difficult affair for many. The ideas of fascism, which had found a receptive audience among significant numbers of French, didn’t disappear when the Allies forced back the Wehrmacht and SS. France may have regained control of its destiny, but for the Jews of France, prejudice burrowed into the new civil service. French Jews returning to their homes still encountered anti-Semitic gangs and government officials who would deport them no matter how fluently they spoke French.
Such a complex and painful time should’ve been documented in film a long time ago. Cinema has preoccupied itself with the build up of Nazism and the realization of its terrible visions. Rarely has it explored the aftermath. For this reason Michel Deville’s Almost Peaceful (Un Monde Presque Paisible) would be a welcome addition to Holocaust cinema, if he had executed it more cautiously.
The film is an adaptation of Robert Bober’s novel Quoi de Neufsur la Guerre. The film shares the novel’s breadth, but is constrained in its exploration of the characters. Instead of a central narrative, the film unfolds in a series of vignettes, concerned with the every day life of the tailor Albert (Simon Abkarian), his wife Lea (Zabou Breitman), their family and the people in their employ. The film does not need a grand climax or stunning revelation to be effective. They would only belittle these sorrowful events. However, Deville could have worked harder to convince the audience of the various story threads he unravels. He would have done greater credit to these times if he had allowed the characters to develop more.
Telling stories is one of the main past-times of Albert’s employees. Most are stories about their experiences during the war. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, they still manage to laugh. These memories are what bind the people in the workshop together. As painful as they are, they instill memory, and the dignity of their survival.
One story is related when two young Jews, Maurice (Stanislas Merhar) and Joseph (Malik Zidi) apply for the position of sewing machine operators. The young men are an audience for the stories which the others never tire of telling. The first concerns the passwords that were used while Albert hid during the occupation of France. His clothes presser, the lantern-jawed Leon (Vincent Elbaz), tells Maurice and Joseph that the passwords derived from tailoring terms. Leon demonstrates that when Albert would hear someone coming, he’d grab his tailor’s scissors and stand poised at the door waiting for the password. Unfortunately Leon chooses the moment when Madame Sarah (Sylvie Milhaud), an elderly purveyor of soap, art and eligible bachelors, arrives at the workshop and sends her fleeing from the shop.
Not everyone is happy to hear these stories, however. Lea asks Albert why he can’t change his tune. She seems weary with his stories and by implication, with the story teller, too. Their supposedly loveless marriage is one of the many threads in this story. Lea’s dissatisfaction with Albert is first hinted at when she encourages Albert to go on a dinner with their young finisher Andree (Julie Gayet). Andree’s motives for agreeing are clear. She wants a job for her sister. Albert’s reasons aren’t so clear. If it were to enjoy the company of a young attractive woman nothing happens before or after to suggest his desire for her. They have this one date, which includes him reciting the romantic lyrics of a Yiddish song, and never again meet. Not even a furtive glance is shared between them. This isn’t surprising, because I am not convinced that Albert has feelings for anyone other than his wife.
Lea’s admits to her frustration when she approaches one of the older machine operators, Charles (Denis Podalydes). She claims that Albert is too busy building a business and supporting his family to have time for her. This scene makes Lea come across as quite unsympathetic because Albert is never shown as being indifferent to Lea. He doesn’t ignore her advances and takes an interest in their children. This might not make him a passionate lover, but nor is he a remote and unloving husband. That Albert’s character is the cause of Lea’s feelings is increasingly doubtful given Charles’ nature. Charles is the most taciturn of this loquacious group. When Lea approaches him he tells her that he is waiting for his wife and daughter to return. It can only be assumed that some deeper emotion is twisting Lea’s perception of the world around her.
She hints at these feelings when she tells Charles “I am afraid of growing old, of no longer wanting to fight to be happy.” This is ordinarily not a strange sentiment, but given what she’s lived through, you would think fighting for happiness would be worthwhile. Whether this portrayal is true to original novel is not the point. That Lea’s view of her husband and her colleague is so contrary to reality deserves further exploration.
Unfortunately, this thread like so many in the film, is left hanging to focus on Maurice and Joseph who until now were spectators in the workshop. Maurice starts a relationship with Simone (Clotilde Courau), a prostitute. At first it is strictly business, then for reasons never made clear it becomes personal. Visiting Simone characterizes Maurice as someone afraid of intimacy. What is it about Simone that makes him change? Is it her forthrightness or just her angelic smile? And of all her clients, why does she allow herself to grow closer to Maurice? Her role is simply to awaken Maurice to his feelings, a nice irony given she’s a prostitute, but because she’s surrounded by more vividly drawn characters, hers remains flat.
Simone is also the only audience Maurice has for his single cherished memory. It concerns seeing the underwear of his first boss’s wife and masturbating to the thought afterwards. On one occasion he lost his thimble, so his boss gave him a new silver one. Maurice lost this one too, on the train when he was being deported. That memories of sexual awakening are no respite from the horror of the Holocaust is clearly poignant, but these characters need to be more than mouth pieces of sorrow. There should be a concrete sense of the people who survived. Yet Maurice, like many of the other characters, is restrained by Deville’s too subtle sensibility.
The episode of the boss’s wife and the thimble is interesting in the context of the film because it is the only use of flashback. As Maurice recounts the memory to Simone, there are shots of his old workshop, the bathroom, and the woman who has tantalized Maurice for so long. This is a radical shift from the rest of film which has not made much use of studio production and is much more powerful for it. For most of the film, the characters tell each other what happened without additional footage. Consequently, their stories have great impact because as in reality, the characters rely on language to preserve and transmit their memories. There is no visual assistance to depict their tales.
The effectiveness of relating the past only in the dialogue is seen when Joseph applies for French citizenship. Like many Jews who were deported from France, Joseph lost his French citizenship. The inspector responsible for reassigning citizenship is one of the officers who took Joseph and his parents to the train station from which they would be sent to the death camps. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, Joseph defies the inspector who has said he will not get what he wants. Joseph tells him that at the moment he was taken he ran and his parents never looked back so as not to alert the gendarmes. As he says, this is real courage, and he vows to write about it one day.
Alas, this powerful moment is diluted by the broad scope of the film. To further distract the audience, Deville has included still shots of the cast and locations throughout the film. At first this method seems to divide the film into different threads. The images draw our attention because a photo can pick up details missed by the moving camera. Ultimately, their inconsistent use makes them more a novelty than a tool for enhancing our understanding of either the characters or the setting.
When the film draws to an end, the various threads are not so much resolved as bundled together. Lea again tells Charles she loves him and he says he’s going to leave. Maurice and Simone are together but there’s nothing to suggest that the relationship is any more than convenient. Joseph, rather than becoming a writer, applies to work at a children’s fete. Leon and his wife Jacqueline have a son and so fulfill their roles of providing hope to people who have resigned to hopeless lives.
The story of Albert and Lea ends sweetly. Simone points out that a young man is watching Lea and instructs Lea on how to seduce him. As she does this, Lea leans over and draws Albert’s attention to his wife so that Lea in effect has seduced her husband. Again, Deville illustrates his sensitivity for ironies both in life as in art. Memories of suffering can bring joy, a prostitute can teach people to love, and the things we desire most are those we need least.
Yet for these lofty themes, the film never fully realizes itself. The problem is simply the structure. When dealing with human suffering on the scale of the Holocaust it is important for filmmakers to remember the people involved. Deville should have taken some cues from Monsieur Albert and shown greater care in how he stitched these tales together.
The DVD release of this film includes photos from the film and a short bio on Deville. They seem to have been included with a reviewer in mind because the general audience would have little use for them.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/almost-peaceful/