Promise at Dawn, directed by Eric Barbier and co-written with Marie Eynard, is an adaption of Romain Gary’s memoir of the same name. Supposedly near his death bed while vacationing in Mexico, Romain recalls his tumultuous but loving relationship with his mother. A failed actress in Russia, single mother Nina Kachew puts extreme expectations on her son — only to leave him unfulfilled when he finally accomplishes them. (BV: 4.5/5.0)
Review by Junior Associate Beatrice Viri
On the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack) frantically panics when her husband Romain Gary (Pierre Niney) is unresponsive in their hotel room. When she pries the door open, he lies on the floor, clinging to a cluttered manuscript while claiming that he’s dying. A difficult man with demanding expectations, Lesley has no choice but to call a taxi for a 5 hour trip to Mexico City, where Romain wishes to die. As Romain sleeps, she peeks into the manuscript that Romain was protecting — his memoir of his late mother, the famed Promise at Dawn.
Promise at Dawn switches between modern-day and the past, cutting back to Lesley reading her husband’s story. Romain Kachew (Pawel Puchaski as a child, Némo Schiffman as a teenager) is born to single mother Nina (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a former actress. She surrenders her acting career to sell hats in Poland and give her son a fanciful upbringing. From a young age, Nina claims that son will become a famous artist, an ambassador, a casanova. Though the young boy is overwhelmed with such aspiring expectations, Romain vows to live up to the image his mother strives for.
The film recounts major life events — the family’s bankruptcy, their move to Nice, Romain’s college years and eventual years in service during World War II. Though his mother’s presence is overbearing, Nina is also his savior and loyally remains by his side in his darkest of moments. In Promise at Dawn, Romain fondly recalls his mother, that he “will never love a woman as much as he loved her” — and the film is a complicated exploration of their relationship.
Promise at Dawn’s summary may give off the impression that the film is quite political; perhaps the original novel is, but the film handles antisemitism very subtly. Discrimination isn’t the main focus, but very present. If you know nothing of Romain Gary, you can deduct that he’s Jewish almost immediately by the way his neighbors treat his mother, up until it’s actually said. They are taken advantage of, they are displaced, they must deal with microaggressions — especially when Romain serves time in the military. Nina wants to live vicariously through her son, but we can also infer that the prejudice they faced amplified her dreams for Romain.
Promise at Dawn is a lengthy feature at a whopping 130-minutes. Some moments feel like they drag on, or conversely, are cut too short. Still, overall Promise at Dawn is a picturesque, heartfelt film portraying the depths of a mother’s love, of the good and the bad. Times are different, but the film resonated with me as an immigrant as well — blaring familial obligations, both self-imposed and imposed by family, and being constantly reminded of your parents’ sacrifices. Family is timeless, as shown by Romain’s unhappiness until death. Romain was spoiled by his mother, to the point where no other woman would ever fulfill him, nor his accomplishments since he could not share them with her. Gainsbourg and Niney’s acting as mother and son are superb, and the banter between them is well-written, especially whenever Romain lies to Nina about his exploits — he exaggerates and makes up romantic tales that he knows his mother would enjoy, playing on her career as a former actress.
The adaption’s cinematography is aesthete, complemented with scenic backdrops and careful costume designs. Interestingly, as time progresses the world becomes more colorful as well. Romain’s childhood starts off in a muted, greyscale filter but takes on more color and sun as the family moves to the Mediterranean — perhaps to reflect better times, progressing technology or location. Either way, it’s an aesthete choice, and brings life to a bittersweet tale.
I do think the progression can be confusing at times, and sometimes meanders from a scene’s focus, but this adaption of Promise at Dawn is thoughtful and evocative. It certainly had me shedding a few tears at the end. Still, it is over two hours long, so it may not be for everyone.
© Beatrice Viri (9/10/19) FF2 Media
Photos: Pawel Puchalski as young Romain Kachew hugging Charlotte Gainsbourg as his mother Nina, Pierre Niney and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Romain and Nina Kachew in Promise at Dawn
Photo Credits: Nicolas Velter, Julien Panié
Does Promise at Dawn pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
No, but it’s about a son’s relationship with his mother — so it really isn’t supposed to.