'Promise at Dawn' ('La Promesse de l'aube'): Film Review

Nicolas Velter/Pathé/Unifrance
Looks better than it plays.

Pierre Niney and Charlotte Gainsbourg headline this biopic of French novelist Romain Gary and his domineering mother.

If the life of French novelist and diplomat Romain Gary — who grew up with his Russian-Jewish mother in Wilno in the 1920s before moving to Nice, France; enlisted in the Free French Forces during World War II as a bombardier; married Jean Seberg; became the French Consul General in Los Angeles; and was an award-winning novelist and co-wrote The Longest Day — sounds like the stuff of a novel, that is because, at least partly, it is one. Gary’s Promise at Dawn (La promesse de l’aube), published in 1960, is a work of fiction inspired by his own life, which is recounted with a lot of verve and probably more than a little invention.

It is now, after a 1971 Jules Dassin adaptation, also the subject of a new and eponymous film directed by Eric Barbier (The Last Diamond) and starring Pierre Niney (Frantz) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Nymphomaniac) as Gary and his overbearing mother, with the movie focused on the writer’s youth as a Polish-speaking kid in Eastern Europe and his subsequent years in the French Forces. This tastefully appointed new version lacks the touch of crazy creation that would have made it feel more of a piece with its subject, with initial audience response in France, where it was released as a prestigious year-end release, more polite than overwhelming — much like the product itself.

The opening, at least, has a strong hook and cinematic edge, as it is set against a raucous Dia de los Muertos celebration in a town in 1950s Mexico that’s about 200 miles from the capital. Gary is ill and delirious and orders his first wife, writer and fashion editor Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack), to take him back to Mexico City because he doesn’t want “to die in the middle of nowhere”. He’s been feverishly writing the novel that would become Promise at Dawn — the French title literally translates at “The Promise of Dawn” — and Blanch starts reading the typed manuscript in the car while they try to get back to a hospital in Mexico City before Gary expires.

This colorful and tumultuous episode isn’t in the novel but comes from an autobiographical work written by Blanch and is used by Babier to make audiences understand that the story they will be watching is indeed a creative work filtered through the protagonist’s own sensibilities, not simply a re-enacted documentary about Gary’s life. The problem is that these framing scenes take up a lot of running-time real estate but otherwise add very little in terms of perspective, other than introducing the voiceover that will accompany the flashbacks to the earlier periods he has fictionalized in his novel.

Roughly the first half of Promise at Dawn focuses on Gary’s childhood in what’s now the Lithuanian capital Vilnius but which was, in 1924, a Polish-speaking part of the Russian empire. Gary (Pawel Puchalski), then around 9 years old, lived with his mother, Nina, a theater actress turned couture maker and seller. As Jews, their life wasn’t easy to begin with, and the fact that a father wasn’t really in the picture made them rely on each other to a probably very unhealthy extent.

Indeed, the whole film is seen through the prism of their unusually intense mother-son bond, with Nina’s impossible expectations for her son starting during his childhood, with her declaiming in an early scene he’ll be a French ambassador someday. Her expectations and constant pressure and nagging no doubt played a large role in leading Gary to greatness — “Don’t forget to work on your novel!” she keeps reminding him — but also undoubtedly are at the root of his frustrating sense of never managing to make her happy or satisfied, even when he does achieve one of her many unlikely and extravagant goals.

As a child, Gary already shows he’s willing to do a lot for a woman he loves, as his first crush forces him to eat the weirdest things to prove his love for her. But Barbier’s Gary is, especially in the early going, mostly a passive character who reacts to his surroundings, with the only psychological information coming from the voiceovers.

The director’s episodic scene-by-scene approach also doesn’t connect the dots in such a way that Gary's interactions with the other women around him are seen as being not only overshadowed but also directly influenced by his problematic relationship with his domineering mother. A hilarious sequence that portrays the first sexual experience of the adolescent Gary (a limber Nemo Schiffman, son of The Artist cinematographer Guillaume and actress Emmanuelle Bercot), for example, is a moment of pure comedy that is not at all connected to any sense of his developing psychology as a young man. Ditto the youth’s interactions with an artistically inclined man (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who takes an unexpected interest in his mother.   

The pic’s first hour remains quite intimate, focusing on Gary and Nina as they move from Vilnius to Nice, where she manages to start a modest pension. Things becomes more epic in scope with the arrival of World War II, when Gary enlists and becomes a French bombardier and the film enters Dunkirk territory (if Christopher Nolan’s film had displayed a sense of sepia-tinted nostalgia). But while aerial battles and a deployment to Africa add couleur locale and exotic touches, the central characters never quite spring loose from their molds and Nina especially remains a bit of a caricature. Barbier flirts occasionally with using her behavior and expectations for comedic purposes, like when she visits Gary in the army and wants to march up to his higher-ups so she can tell them how to solve a problem like Hitler. But overall, she’s a dour and difficult person to satisfy, and the love for her child that makes her so demanding in the first place is often harder to detect.

Like Gainsbourg, Niney is a versatile actor and someone who’s equally believable as a guilt-racked WWI survivor, a famous haute couture designer or a slippery pretender-turned-criminal. But the character’s multi-faceted complexity never quite breaks the surface, with Niney, again like his colleague, not aided by Barbier and regular co-writer Marie Eynard’s screenplay that favors incident over insight too often.

At 24 million Euros (about $28.8 million), Promise at Dawn was a pricey historical biopic by French standards, and it's certainly possible to cut a breathtaking trailer from the material contained in the film, with the cinematography, production design and costume design all impressive. But what moved readers about Gary’s novel was not the upholstery but the universal — if complex — emotional truths revealed to be hiding underneath the exceptionally fanciful life it described, and in that critical area, the movie is simply lacking.

Production companies: Jerico, Pathe, TF1 Films Production, Nexus Factory, Umedia, Loretta Cinema
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Pierre Niney, Didier Bourdon, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Catherine McCormack, Finnegan Oldfield, Pawel Puchalski, Nemo Schiffman
Director: Eric Barbier
Screenplay: Eric Barbier, Marie Eynard, based on the novel by Romain Gary
Producers: Eric Jehelmann, Philippe Rousselet
Director of photography: Glynn Speeckaert
Production designer: Pierre Renson
Costume designer: Catherine Bouchard
Editor: Jennifer Auge
Casting: Gigi Akoka
Venue: Utopia Luxembourg

Sales: Pathe

In French, Polish, English
130 minutes