Judge Joe Armenio looks at a unique film about Holocaust survivors.
"We all had our own war."—Albert
French director Michel Deville is 74 years old (71 when Almost Peaceful was made) and has over thirty films to his credit, but he's not well known in the United States. The director's bio on this DVD describes his first few films as "contemporaneous with the Nouvelle Vague, without belonging to the movement," and in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson describes Deville as "at his best…a complex and tender comedian of the emotions." I haven't seen any of Deville's other films, but Almost Peaceful confirms these descriptions; it's a light film about a very dark subject—the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War II—and seems to draw its primary inspiration from the humanism of Jean Renoir rather than the style and flash of the New Wave.
Almost Peaceful is an ensemble piece set in Paris in 1946, in the shop of Albert, a Jewish tailor (Simon Abkarian). Albert and his wife, Léa (Zabou Breitman), were separated during the war. Albert avoided the camps by hiding in an attic, while Léa fled to an isolated farm with their two children. The film charts the awkward process by which husband and wife become reacquainted with each other, and also follows a number of other narrative threads involving the mostly Jewish employees in Albert's small workshop: the pregnancy of Jacqueline (Lubna Azabal), who is married to Léon (Vincent Elbaz), a former Resistance fighter and aspiring actor; the budding affair of Albert's apprentice Maurice (Stanislas Merhar) with a prostitute, Simone (Clotilde Courau); the pain of Charles (Denis Podalydes), whose wife and children are still missing in the camps.
"Episodic" is a generous way to describe the way Almost Peaceful deals with these and other stories—"shapeless" is probably more accurate. The presence of all these characters in the tailor's shop gives the film a focus of sorts, but Deville flutters from story to story without giving any of them much narrative momentum. So the film is less about its various plots, and more about the sketching of certain themes. One is the sheer awkwardness of adjusting to "normal" life after the experience of the war, and the knowledge that not all suffered equally; at one point Léon makes a dark joke about the camps, and a cloud of embarrassment settles on the workshop as they all realize that Charles can't find it funny. Another theme is the power of art, both as a celebration of life and a tool of memory; this idea runs elegantly through several of the characters' subplots. Léon's desire to act, the drawing talent of Albert and Léa's son, and the desire of Albert's youngest employee, Joseph (Malik Zidi), to write a book about his experiences are all seen as movingly life-affirming gestures, miracles worthy of celebration.
Almost Peaceful also deals with the reality of French collaboration with the Nazis, and the enduring prevalence of anti-Semitism after the war. Joseph defiantly declares his desire to write a book to a dour police bureaucrat who, it turns out, was the informer who turned the young man's parents over to the Nazis; the man remains unrepentant and determined to squash Joseph's application for French citizenship. In another scene, Léon meets a man in a bar whom he remembers from his wartime imprisonment, and the man casually declares his continuing hatred for the Jews.
The most important theme, though, is the celebration of children, symbols of life and vitality stubbornly persisting through the horrors of genocide. The parents all want to protect their children, to keep them pure: "I forbid you to suffer!" says Léa to her little ones at one point. Jacqueline has had a son during the war, a powerfully rebellious gesture. "You're special because you've managed to come this far," one of the workshop employees tells the little boy. There is, however, a recognition that not all children have been spared. One of the film's more powerful moments is a darkly lit monologue by a young boy recounting his parents' desperate attempts to hide him from the Nazis. Still, the film ends on a note of affirmation at a party at the summer camp attended by Albert and Léa's children; the kids play and frolic, and life goes on. This seemed to me not only a comment on the Holocaust, but a personal gesture by an aging filmmaker looking with a sort of wistful affection at the liveliness of the young.
I wouldn't make excessive claims for Almost Peaceful. It's a small, slight film that's content to be small and slight, and most of the themes mentioned above are sketched out and suggested rather than explored deeply. For most of its running time, the film teeters on the edge of cloying sentimentality, and in the summer camp scene I think it falls over that edge (especially in the sequence in which the excessively sweet Simone is able to rekindle Albert and Léa's romance with implausible swiftness). One could say legitimately that the picture's light tone trivializes the Holocaust, and certainly there's no treatment here of the harrowing psychological and existential experiences of many survivors. For me, though, Almost Peaceful's gentle, affirmative humanism felt more emotionally honest than, say, Hotel Rwanda, another recent film that also was ostensibly about the horrors of genocide and continuing power of life, but seemed less concerned with these issues than it was with staging action sequences and constructing a Hollywood-approved happy ending.
The film is presented in widescreen format with an acceptable transfer. The only extras on the disc are a text biography of Deville, a photo gallery, and trailers for Almost Peaceful and three other Empire films. Although the Internet Movie Database, Amazon, and the DVD case all list the film's running time as 94 minutes, it actually is 90 minutes long.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Empire Pictures
• Director's Bio
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