A promise fulfilled

The movie opens in the 1960s with a weak framing device – the adult Gary (Pierre Niney) and his then-wife, writer Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack) – are in Mexico when he starts writing.

PROMISE AT DAWN (photo credit: EDEN CINEMA)
PROMISE AT DAWN
(photo credit: EDEN CINEMA)
‘Promise  at Dawn’
With Charlotte Gainsbourg
and Pierre Niney
Hebrew title: Havtaha im Shahar
131 minutes. In French, Polish, Spanish and English
Check with theaters for subtitle information
 
The only thing ordinary about Eric Barbier’s Promise at Dawn is its title. This offbeat, literary biopic, based on Romain Gary’s memoir of his childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, all of which was lovingly and maddeningly shaped by his fanatically ambitious Jewish mother, Nina (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is charming, funny, suspenseful and ultimately moving. Its abrupt shifts in tone are jarring at times, and there were moments when I wished the plot would slow down and spend more time delving into Nina’s psyche and motivations, but it’s still a wonderful film.
The movie opens in the 1960s with a weak framing device – the adult Gary (Pierre Niney) and his then-wife, writer Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack) – are in Mexico when he starts writing Promise at Dawn, the intensity of which makes him ill. But the film quickly shifts to the memoir itself, and Romain’s life with Nina.
Romain (played as a child by Pawel Puchalski and a teen by Némo Schiffman), né Kacew, grew up to become one of France’s most acclaimed writers and also had a career as a diplomat. All of this, it turns out, was exactly the scenario his mother wrote for him, although her plan for his personal life was murkier. What she cared about was success, and he was nothing if not an obedient son, although their intense bond weighed on him and made adult relationships difficult for him, a fact that his chilly marriage in the framing device is apparently meant to show.
The story goes back to Romain’s childhood, when he and Nina, a single mother and former actress, were living in Vilnius between the wars. Nina eked out a living for the two of them, selling fancy hats to rich women, but she dreamed of so much more for her son. A Francophile, she was determined that he would fulfill all her ambitions for him in France, as a Frenchman.
At first, she was determined that he become a violin prodigy, such a common Jewish dream at the time, which brings to mind Isaac Babel’s short story “Awakening.”
When Romain failed to show musical talent but did show artistic promise, Nina was immediately and adamantly opposed to his becoming a painter. “Talent didn’t help van Gogh and Gauguin during their lives. Van Gogh committed suicide at 35. I want you to be famous while you’re alive.”
Gary’s natural flair for literature pleased his mother – Victor Hugo was celebrated during his lifetime, which she frequently pointed out – and for the rest of her life he felt constant pressure to create an “immortal literary masterpiece” that would please her.
Eventually, they moved to France, and she managed to open a hotel in Nice, using extraordinary ingenuity, although whatever she accomplished on her own was just meant to give her son a launching pad.
The only permissible detours from literary greatness were through the military, which she felt would help her son build a career as a diplomat. After Hitler came to power, she virtually ordered Romain – who was trained in pistol shooting by a former Russian nobleman back in Vilnius – to go to Germany and assassinate him, insuring his future as a French hero.
The last third of the film details Romain’s military career before and during World War II, when he became a navigator in the RAF and was separated from his mother but rarely stopped thinking of her. Like the rest of the movie, this section mixes comedy, tragedy and pathos, often in a single scene.
Gainsbourg is sublime as Nina, a role that could easily have been overblown and grating. In Gainsbourg’s portrayal, Nina is like the patron saint of Jewish mothers, but she is also an engaging and attractive woman, coping heroically with difficult circumstances. This French-British actress, the daughter of singer Serge Gainsbourg and actress Jane Birkin, has been excellent in dozens of roles – in such films as Joseph Cedar’s Norman, The Tree and Samba – but she’s never been as appealing as she is here. Playing the ultimate Jewish mother brings out all that is lovely in this versatile actress, a fitting tribute to the spirit behind Gary’s memoir.