EARLY ON IN Almost Peaceful, a graceful new French film set in Paris immediately after World War II, a young man applying for a position in a Jewish custom-tailoring workshop notices the tailor’s children going off to summer camp. “A full family,” he says to the tailor. “That’s nice.” It’s the kind of banal, off-the-cuff remark any canny job applicant might make to someone he hopes will hire him, but in context the comment is loaded with tragedy. A full family was a rarity among Jews returning from hiding or from the concentration camps, and the young man, who represents all that’s left of his own kin, offers the observation with a wistful envy so subtle that we recall it only when the film is almost over. Like so much else in Michel Deville’s modest, wise ensemble piece, the remark goes unanswered, but it hangs in the air, slowly seeping into our minds as a glancing hint at a broken world.
Watching this lyrically titled film — adapted by Rosalinde Deville from a novel by Robert Bober, himself a documentary filmmaker as well as a former refugee tailor — you become aware of how few movies about survivors of the Holocaust show them going about their lives, as opposed to acting out someone’s idea of a Holocaust Survivor. It’s off-season and business is scarce, but the workshop’s genial, mercurial owner, Albert (Simon Abkarian), hires the young and comically incompetent applicant Joseph (Malik Zidi) anyway, along with a sad-faced master tailor named Maurice (Stanislas Merhar). The atmosphere in the big room of this family business is jaunty, abuzz with plans, ambitions, fecundity and furtive flirtatiousness. Children run in and out of the workplace, cherished as only the children of a generation that has come close to annihilation can be. Only one of the tailors — the shy, bespectacled Charles (Denis Podalydès), who lost his entire family to the camps — is obviously a destroyed man, living out each day, he says, just to keep the memories alive. For the rest, the past bleeds into their daily lives like a slow-moving but powerful river current, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not. Some talk about the past, others refuse to. There are bursts of bitterness, pain and rage. A child refuses to eat jam because he was eating jam when the Gestaapo came for his parents. A mother cries, “I forbid you to suffer!” when her son traps his hand in a drawer “to test my resistance to pain.” An ebullient aspiring actor, and not the only character with grand career plans, explains to an incredulous Gentile co-worker that he had his infant son circumcised while in hiding so that even if the child’s life was to be short, at least it would be a Jewish life.
Deville is an old French New Waver who was on the verge of retiring when Bober’s novel came his way. You can see flashes of those early influences in the movie’s few discreet stylistic flourishes, like the stills that provide wistful snapshots of the employees’ lonely rootlessness when they’re not working. Yet Almost Peaceful is the unassuming work of a man whose impulse to show off has been eclipsed by a seasoned feel for the everyday in what turned out to be an inglorious period of French history. Shot in a golden light that stops just short of the clichéd sepia in which so many period movies come bathed, the movie’s ending — a joyous picnic for as full a family as can be cobbled together under the circumstances — may be a touch more golden than their situations warrant. The movie has no grand insights, and it always teeters on the border of sentimentality. But there’s a saving mischief in the final moments, in which a hooker in love teaches a matron how to flirt with her own husband, along with a somber homage to people who for the rest of their days will have to live between hope and despair, between remembering and forgetting. You’ll leave the theater wanting to know what became of them.
ALMOST PEACEFUL | Directed by MICHEL DEVILLE | Written by ROSALINDE DEVILLE, based on the novel Quoi de
Neuf Sur la Guerre? by ROBERT BOBER | Produced by LINDE DEVILLE | Released by Empire Pictures | At Laemmle’s Music Hall and Town Center 5