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Promise at Dawn (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

Promise at Dawn


Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Pierre Niney, Didier Bourdon, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Catherine McCormack, Finnegan Oldfield, Pawel Puchalski, Nemo Schiffman, Zoe Boyle, Lou Chauvain, Emiliano Suarez, Alberto Maniero, Preciado Rodriguez, Katarzyna Skarzanka, Marta Klubowic, Piotr Cyrwus, Jakub Oniszk and Klaudia Trafalska.

Screenplay by Eric Barbier and Marie Eynard.

Directed by Eric Barbier.

Distributed by Menemsha Films. 130 minutes. Not Rated.

Romain Gary (né Kacew) is a big literary name in France, even nearly 40 years after his suicide (which followed a year after the suicide of his estranged wife, actress Jean Seberg). He wrote about 50 books (including several under pseudonyms). He was also a diplomat, film director, and a World War II aviator. He was a modern renaissance man.

That complicated CV, the eternal striving, the hunger for perfection, the strong work ethic – all stem from his mère.

Promise at Dawn is based on one of his more acclaimed books, the 1961 memoir Promise at Dawn (La Promesse de l’Aube), about his life as a boy and young man and his complicated relationship with his mother, Nina. (The book was also made into a movie in 1970, starring Melina Mercouri and Assi Dayan.)

An epic, sprawling story which spans four countries, businesses, illnesses, multiple sexual affairs and World War II, Gary certainly had an interesting, cinematic life.

Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg as Nina and three actors as Romain at different ages (Pierre Niney plays him as a man), this new film does a good job – at least as good as possible – of capturing Gary’s particular complicated writing style. Promise at Dawn is sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes very serious, sometimes almost comically lightweight, sometimes exciting, sometimes overwrought, sometimes fascinating and sometimes frustrating.

Which is much like Gary’s relationship with his mother.

Nina is a very complicated woman – even considering the fact that we are seeing her through Gary’s eyes, which is not necessarily who she was in real life. However, the Nina that we see here is concurrently doting and cutting, smart and needy, sweet and cruel, faithful and dismissive. She is smart enough to become a popular dressmaker, and rash enough to lose her company. As a Polish Jew immigrant, she idealizes France and the idea of being French, even though she and her son never quite fit in wherever they end up.

However, most of all, she is completely devoted to her son. She has huge aspirations for him even when he is a little boy. He will not only be a writer, she is sure, he will be an acclaimed best-selling novelist. He will not only join the army, he will single-handedly win World War II for France, even though as a Jew he can barely serve. She even briefly plans on him going to Berlin to singlehandedly kill Hitler, before better sense takes over. (That said, she still believed he could do it.) And, in his spare time, he’d become a diplomat.

This strong mix of love and overestimation turns Romain into an odd adult, constantly living with the contradictions of his own inadequacies and a desperate need to live up to his mother’s dreams.

Promise at Dawn is old-fashioned filmmaking, an epic drama which straddles decades and foreign lands. (Dialogue in the film is in French, Polish and English.) Occasionally it gets a little too surreal or too melodramatic, but mostly it is a rousing entertainment.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: September 6, 2019.

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