A thoroughly charming ensembler set among members of the Jewish community in post-war Paris, Michel Deville’s “Almost Peaceful” is a gentle, sad and at times funny film in the best French tradition of high-quality cinema. The deceptive simplicity of the pic, plus the lack of names in the cast, will make critical support vital for the success of a film that audiences are certain to embrace once they discover it, so good word of mouth and strong ancillary are indicated.
Deville is an eclectic director who made his first feature at the beginning of the period of the French New Wave in 1958. Since then, he has excelled with romantic comedies and thrillers, always demonstrating a fine ability to work with actors and to tease the maximum from his material. “Almost Peaceful” finds him in a very mellow mood, though dealing with a painful period of reconstruction. Buffs will hardly fail to see the influence of films by Jean Renoir, especially “The Crime of M. Lange” which, like this film, is set around a courtyard in central Paris.
The year is 1946. A Jewish tailor, Albert (Simon Abkarian), and his wife, Lea (Zabou Breitman), are re-establishing their business just off the Rue du Soleil. Determined to resume normal lives after surviving the Holocaust, Albert and Lea live on the premises, but their children have not yet moved back into the family home; the kids write their parents long, fond letters.
Albert begins to hire experienced workers, all of them Jewish, except Mme. Andree (Julie Gaynet). They include Charles Grynstam (Denis Podalydes), whose family died in the camps and whose landlord is insensitively urging him to move to a smaller apartment (mainly so he can re-let the larger one); Leon (Vincent Elbaz), a would-be actor, and his pregnant wife, Jacqueline (Lubna Azabal); Maurice (Stanislas Merhar), another survivor, who is now unable to enter into a permanent relationships, so seeks love in the arms of prostitutes; and Joseph (Malik Zidi), an inexperienced trainee with ambitions to be a writer.
Light on narrative in the conventional sense, the film is constructed around scenes designed to bring the viewer closer to these people. But nothing is forced in the telling of these stories of damaged lives.
Mme. Andree seeks Albert’s help in finding work for her sister, who, during the war in Orleans, was the mistress of a German soldier; now disgraced and an object of shame, and left with a child, the sister needs to get away. But Albert gently refuses, explaining simply, “We all had our own war.”
Meanwhile Lea finds herself drawn to the suffering Charles, who spends most of his time alone with his painful memories of loss and tragedy. Maurice, on the other hand, finds himself falling in love with Simone (Clotilde Courau), one of the prostitutes who work in the quarter, and she cheerfully reciprocates and is accepted with generosity by her lover’s colleagues and friends. One of the strongest scenes involves an encounter between Joseph and the police inspector who, in 1942, had Joseph and his parents arrested. He never saw his parents again; the man responsible is still a cop.
Much of the film unfolds in the workshop where the men and women sew, stitch and fit clothes. The return of a plump American woman — a prewar customer — is a cause for great rejoicing. The film also contains some charming asides, like the story Mme. Andree tells the children (and which is depicted onscreen) about the adventures of a little boy who can’t stop whistling.
The last part of the film takes place during a picnic, attended by all the characters, in the grounds of a chateau. Here again the comparisons to Renoir become very clear. The film’s generosity and humor, though it deals with basically sad and difficult themes, are inspirational.
All cast members work together seamlessly in a film that is handsomely produced and elegantly directed.