A beloved stalwart of the French film industry, actor Sandrine Kiberlain marks her directorial debut with “A Radiant Girl.” After premiering at Cannes’ Critics Week sidebar this past July, the film will now screen at the Torino Film Festival ahead of a domestic release early next year.
Set during the fraught summer of 1942 and following a Jewish girl, Irene (Rebecca Marder), as she prepares for a conservatory entrance exam, the bittersweet film is most notable for what it elides – at no point does the ebullient lead speak the words “Vichy,” “Nazi,” or “Occupation.” And as the filmmaker explains, that was precisely the point.
“We know what happened, we know how things turned out, so it was enough to simply live in that period,” Kiberlain tells Variety. “We know what danger is coming, which meant that you can wring incredible tension from moments of great joy.”
“I wanted to approach a period of history that has always haunted me without turning it into another war film,” Kiberlain continues. “Once I landed on the idea of a strong and wilful 19-year-old girl, I realized that by treating her strength of spirit, I could evoke to an even greater degree the horrors of what was to come by showing all that she would lose.”
Striking that right balance – using moments of levity and youthful abandon as elements of negative space – presented a particular challenge, the filmmaker grants.
“I had to show the danger, that monster lurking in the shadows, without stopping my heroine from moving forward,” she says. “I wanted people to be able to relate to her, so I thought of the film as pages from a diary that moves along with her. Bad news one day leads to romance the next. The character is young and impassioned and full of life; she doesn’t want to dwell on what’s breaking around here, so she pursues her passion for theater, until the bad news accumulates and she can’t do anything else but bear it.”
In shaping this exploration of a girl’s inner life, the filmmaker and her team pushed back against having too many period trappings and dropped several contemporary musical cues, even as they situated the narrative at a very specific historical moment.
“I didn’t want to ‘date’ the film,” she explains. “As I told the set and costume designers, while we couldn’t hide the film’s era, we had to bring it back to what frightens us today. I wanted the film to bring us back to the period we are living in. The heroine had to be very contemporary, so that we could identify with her, so that young people could say to themselves ‘that could be me.’ That could be someone who goes to the Bataclan and doesn’t come out.”
As it happens, Kiberlain will co-star in an upcoming police thriller about those Paris attacks – which is just one of five projects she has coming down the pike. Though she has no plan to slow her busy acting schedule, she’ll approach future directorial outings on a more deliberate timeline.
“My future is to accompany this film,” Kiberlain says. “This is the last time I’ll have made a first film, so I’m very attached. It’s all I can think about! I would love to direct again, but I’ll never be a director who finds one idea after another. I’ll need to think about what story I want to tell because it has to be vital, it has to be necessary, I’ll have to be with it 100%.”