PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

Almost Peaceful

Ryan Scott

Almost Peaceful shares the breadth of the novel it was based upon, but it is constrained in its exploration of the characters.


Almost Peaceful

Director: Michel Deville
Cast: Simon Abkarian, Zabou, Vincent Elbaz, Lubna Azabal, Denis Podalydès
Length: 94
Studio: First Run
Distributor: Empire Pictures
MPAA rating: N/A
US DVD Release Date: 2007-08-21

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.

6

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.