‘A Radiant Girl’ Review: Coming of Age in Paris, 1942

This Holocaust drama could have easily passed for a blissful teen romance; instead, it’s an awkwardly rendered portrait of a young Jewish woman in denial.

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By Beatrice Loayza

With its swoony pop music and soft summertime twinkle, “A Radiant Girl” could have passed for a blissful coming-of-age romance. Irene (Rebecca Marder), a bubbly, motor-mouthed 19-year-old, seems convinced she’s in one. But this deceptively warm drama — the directorial debut of the French actress and chanteuse Sandrine Kiberlain — is as much about the darkness that creeps at the edges of Irene’s life as it is about her rose-tinted moments of self-discovery.

It’s Paris, 1942, and German officials and the French police are deporting Jews to concentration camps in increasing numbers. Things are changing quickly: Irene’s well-to-do Jewish family is forced to hand over a radio, a telephone and their bicycles. Neighbors and shopkeepers are beginning to act weird, even aggressive.

These developments are sprinkled throughout the film like a trail of bread crumbs. Though Irene’s family — her anxious father (André Marcon), a flutist brother (Anthony Bajon), and her freethinking grandmother (Françoise Widhoff) — can feel those changes, Irene barely seems to notice as she prepares for a conservatory audition, breaks hearts, and eyes her family doctor’s cute assistant.

Irene is the epitome of a theater kid — a talented one at that, and an expert fainter — but her ability to sustain an illusion seems to extend to her worldview as well. Is she tragically naïve or in denial?

Fantasy, performance and the discovery of hard truths intermingle in several coming-of-age films set in Europe during World War II, including Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir les Enfants” and Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful.”

Clearly Kiberlain had these movies in mind, but the film’s conceptual intentions are betrayed by its mishandled idiosyncratic flourishes. In Marder’s overly affected performance, Irene comes off as a precious idiot rather than a buoyant young woman concealing hidden depths. At points, the contrast between Irene’s joy and the encroaching horrors is jarring and eerie, but “A Radiant Girl” seldom hits these notes — the rest is deflating and awkward.

A Radiant Girl
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. In theaters.

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