“PROMISE AT DAWN” (“La promesse de l’aube”)— Chagrin, Suffering, Destitution, Pain, Discrimination and Hard Times During World War II

“PROMISE AT DAWN” (“La promesse de l’aube”)

Chagrin, Suffering, Destitution, Pain, Discrimination and Hard Times During World War II

Amos Lassen

I remember seeing the original “Promise at Dawn” in Israel soon after I moved there and I was totally impressed by the two main actors, Melina Mercouri and Assaf Dayan (the hottest Israeli male star at the time).It was directed by Mercouri’s husband Jules Dassin and for years I have wanted to own a copy. It never happened since it was released on DVD and the few VHS copies that are available are very expensive and poor copies at that.

Then I heard that the film was being remade and directed by Eric Barbier with Pierre Niney, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Didier Bourdon. For some reason, I could not find out who was disturbing and if it would ever be released (I have since learned that it was made from two years ago but negotiations for release were not going well. To my surprise I received a letter from the film’s publicist at Menemsha Films that it would American movie house screens on September 6. Even better than that, the publicist asked if I would like to review it and was able to get me a stunning DVD copy.

“Promise at Dawn” is the epic and beautiful autobiographical film about Romain Gary and it takes us into his amazing and extraordinary life. We are with him during his difficult childhood in Poland to his adolescence in Nice, to his aviator’s exploits in Africa during the Second World War and after. Gary wanted to live a thousand lives, become a great man and a famous writer and he owes everything to his mother, Nina. They shared a crazy love. Nina was an endearing and eccentric mother but she made him one of the major novelists of the twentieth century as he lived a life that was full of twists, passions and mysteries. However this maternal love became his burden for life.  

We go from 1920’s Poland to 1950’s Mexico and from the airfields to the African desert, from pre-war France to the bombing of London. Director Eric Barbier gives us all the fantastic aspects of the life of Romain Gary and we become immersed in the world of Romain Gary. Nina (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Romain’s mother, is eccentric and monstrous, filled with incredible energy and strength of character  and she totally adored her son (Pierre Niney). She wanted him to be somebody. Perhaps she pushed him too hard or sometimes suffocated him with her love but she dictated his life even if she was at times a bit controlling. There are double promises here that both has to hold. Were the promises ever kept? To find out you will have to see the film and I am going to try to make you want to see it. It has something for everyone including a eulogy of will, tolerance, heroism, melancholy and humor. Did either of them hold their promises? Well you will have to see this beautiful film.

It is  Charlotte Gainsbourg who owns the film and she is backed by a fine cast and a gorgeous story. “Promise at Dawn” is a look at chagrin, suffering, destitution, pain, discrimination and hardship suffered during World War II and as it pulls us in and we feel what the characters feel.

Gary was born Roman Kacew in Poland, where his mother had always believed in his future glory, even when they lived in near destitution. She shouted in front of racist neighbors that her son would become a wonderful and famous writer, a celebrity and a personality as well as a French ambassador. Because they were Jewish, Nina was the target of insults, targeted by raids and in danger of being exterminated with the other millions of Jewish people who have died in the Nazi death camps.

Nina Kacew has been trying to have her own business, a tailor shop where women worked for her, making clothes that were very appreciated, but often not paid for. Nina and Roman go to France, taking all of their possessions in the world, which Nina sells in antique shops. She poses as a Russian princess and the samovar that she displays is both precious because of the make, material, but also on account of its historical importance, convincing the owner of the antique store to form a partnership with her. He doesn’t buy the objects, but he says that he will provide accommodations at the hotels where Nina Kacew would pose as the aristocrat from Russia  and he was willing to advance some cash. This turns out to be successful and Nina starts another business venture with the only taxi driver that had accepted to take the family when they arrived at the station and other drivers refused the fare.

I have a hard time identifying my feelings for Nina. She truly loves and encourages Roman but she is actually there for every step he takes and she always has confidence and trust in him.

Roman Kacew experiences trauma and adversity and always manages to overcome every obstacle he faces. He changes his name to Romain and fights as a pilot in the British Air Force, facing the German enemy and he sees many casualties and some miraculous escapes. Roman keeps getting letters from his mother and they are letters of comfort, encouragement, support, and praise.

“Promise at Dawn” was filmed in five countries and it is visually gorgeous. The beautiful landscapes are accompanied by impressive computer effects to recreate the intense fighting atmosphere of World War II.

The characters carry emotional baggage from the very beginning to the end and thisremains with the viewer when the lights come up. At times the plot is hard to believe but so was Gary’s life. Gary’s destructive cycle of madness ultimately leads him to success but also to his death.  The film has adventure, anti-Semitism, first love , beautiful period restoration costume design and martial arts and these all come together to give us  a cinematic experience. It beautifully conveys Gary’s writing fervor. I fell in love with the film and its characters just as I did with the original film. This version is a tremendous improvement over the earlier film and I love the emotions we see and feel here. “Promise at Dawn” is a film that you do not want to miss.

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