However abetted by fiction, Romain Gary’s autobiographical novel “Promise at Dawn” is more of a roaring yarn than most memoirs have a right to be: Covering over 20-odd years in the celebrated French author’s early life, it’s a bildungsroman that covers pluckily overcome poverty in Poland, sensual education in the south of France and WWII aviation derring-do in Africa and Europe, its many colorful vignettes sewn through by the fierce love between Gary and his vivacious single mother Nina. It’s a story that, from its publication in 1960, veritably begged to be a movie, and it’s perhaps a shame that Gary, also a filmmaker in his own right, never took a stab at it himself. Jules Dassin caught only part of the book’s magic in his 1970 adaptation; now, Eric Barbier’s long, sometimes lively, sometimes lumbering version isn’t really an improvement.
Which is not to say that this expensively revived “Promise at Dawn,” premiering in rather low-key fashion at the Busan Film Festival, is a bust. Barbier (“Le brasier,” “The Last Serpent”) has delivered an old-fashioned, triple-decker jambon et fromage sandwich of a movie: thickly piled with ripe incident and grand overacting, running the tonal gamut from teary melodrama to bawdy farce to gung-ho adventure and back again, it’s cinema that fills you up even as you question its nutritional value. The combination of still-treasured source material and the star casting of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Pierre Niney as mother and son should serve “Promise” well domestically when it opens in France shortly before Christmas; internationally, its a less sure commercial prospect, though still glossily accessible enough to land widespread distribution.
Where Dassin’s more compressed film essentially repackaged Gary’s story as a glowing star vehicle for the director’s wife Melina Mercouri, Barbier’s adaptation — running a luxuriant 130 minutes — lands a shade closer to the book’s wandering, episodic spirit. The jaundiced poetry and self-effacing wit of Gary’s writing, on the other hand, only sporadically trickle through its decorative surface — which, thanks to meticulous work by cinematographer Glynn Speeckaert and production designer Pierre Renson, exudes the light gleam of freshly polished vintage silver throughout.
The film’s intermittent framing scenes, covering the tortured creation of the book itself, are its hokiest. Introducing viewers to a dissolute middle-aged Gary (Niney, rather oversalting the ham) as he and his stalwart first wife Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack) weather an overnight medical scare in Mexico, it pads out a less explicit reflective voice from the novel to little benefit beyond some picturesque establishing shots of Día de los Muertos festivities. Matters improve once the timeline reels back to snow-caked, Polish-annexed Vilnius circa 1924, initiating the mother-son romance at the heart of the narrative, and introducing Gainsbourg, cast brashly against type, as Gary’s capricious, adoring, impossibly demanding ma.
An alleged Russian theater dame turned cash-strapped seamstress, Nina reassigns most of her own shattered ambitions to the 10-year-old Gary (born Roman Kacew), bragging to all who’ll listen that he’ll grow up to be a great writer, a decorated general, a French ambassador, a Knight of the Legion of Honor and a ladies’ man to boot. (When the kid shows an aptitude for painting, however, she couldn’t approve less: “Talent didn’t help van Gogh and Gauguin during their lives,” she sniffs.) Her outsize dreams set the template for Gary’s rich, restless life story, lived in constant pursuit of those unreasonably set targets.
The young Gary — engagingly played as a child by Pawel Puchalski and as a teen by Nemo Schiffman, before Niney takes the baton — is buffeted by his mother’s whims with a mixture of devotion and bemusement. The first half of this itinerant film is dominated by Nina’s entertainingly eccentric schemes, from posing as a Parisian-approved couturier in Poland to finding her roundabout calling as a hotelier in idyllic, sun-soaked 1930s Nice. Gainsbourg, whose filmography has been dominated by more intensely introverted roles, evidently relishes a rare opportunity to play larger than life. Still, it’s her default vulnerability as an actor that saves the character from becoming entirely insufferable — even as Nina’s unflagging knack for popping up at the least welcome intervals in her growing son’s life reaches sitcom levels of running jokery.
Once Niney takes over as the adult Gary, the balance of storytelling tilts in favor of his alternately charmed and cursed exploits. His up-and-down military career dominates the film’s latter half, though even within this realm, the tone and scope of events ping-pong between socially conscious drama (as Gary is penalized in the French army for his Jewishness) to epic-scale air-force action (culminating in some vertigo-inducing CG aerial bombing sequences) to such overtly silly japes as a duel with an English soldier over an airhead poetess. (As the latter, incidentally, “Downton Abbey” star Zoe Boyle gives the film its most concentrated spell of comic effervescence, earning ensemble MVP status in mere minutes.)
It’s all a bit of a rambling lark, working toward an inevitable, glaringly telegraphed tearjerker of a resolution that gets the desired response, however clunky the setup. Nothing here sticks to the soul the way Gary’s prose does, and the natty Niney doesn’t quite project the internal passion and pain needed to fire the film through its stodgier interludes. (When rising star Finnegan Oldfield briefly shows up as one of Gary’s air force frenemies, it’s tempting to imagine the two actors trading roles.) Still, rather like the doughty Nina herself, “Promise at Dawn” powers through thick and thin on the strength of its own determination: Its airs of greatness may be endearing, but don’t mask the scrappy striver beneath.