I’m not sure where the “almost” comes from in Almost Peaceful. Placid to a fault, neither the surface of this movie nor the still waters beneath suggest much difficulty in adjusting to a post-war society, which happens to be the film’s subject. The story, or series of vignettes, takes place in a Jewish tailor’s workroom in Paris, summer 1946. The tailor, Albert, hid in an attic during the Nazi occupation; many of his employees are concentration camp survivors. Yet no one seems particularly scarred by the devastation. With the exception of one man, Charles, who watches and waits for his dead wife and child to return from the camps, and who fends off the advances of another woman with a protest of fidelity (“I haven’t left her, and she hasn’t left me”), they’re all unusually relaxed and jovial. I didn’t come away from this film with a sense of people struggling to return to ordinary life.
It’s possible that the writer-director Michel Deville, who was born in 1931, thought a cooler, dryer approach to such emotionally charged material might make his film more palatable, and while on some level I admire his resistance to grief, what Deville comes up with is no more than a pleasant time-filler. Often, he’s banal. Such as when he makes Simone, the 10th arrondissement prostitute with a heart of gold, refer to the trains in which Jews rode to the camps: “It’s like a trail of tears.” Her john-turned-boyfriend, a sad-faced 30-year-old who works for the dressmaker, chimes in reply: “The only stock that never runs out.” At that exchange, I wondered—could the original French dialogue be as pedestrian as the subtitles?
A friend of mine said that Almost Peaceful looks as if it were made earlier than 2002. It does. Cinematographer Andre Diot’s soft lighting lends the film a gauzy radiance, especially in the pastoral finale—a leisurely stroll through the grounds of an old mansion that houses the children’s summer school. In the midst of lush greenery, lovers flirt, families picnic, boys hurl balls at stage-prop likenesses of Hitler and Göebbels. Deville seems to be looking back to the past, to an idealized mid-19th century mode of life. A number of things point to this: the castle itself as a place of refuge, the use of Bottesini’s bow-skittering double bass music throughout the soundtrack, and the director’s stodgy interspersion of stills. Deville creates montages that don’t flow; he frames the actors motionlessly entering a door, peering out a window, or skipping down the street as if frozen in time.
The strongest evidence for Deville’s lack of interest (or faith) in the post-WWII era emerges during a fairy tale sequence set in a Bavarian forest wonderland. Andrée, the lone gentile in Albert’s shop, comforts an ailing child who stayed home from school by telling him a long and not entirely clear parable. The story details a boy’s journey into the vast forest in search of a cure (for his inability to stop whistling) from some wise old king. The tale and the telling of it don’t so much stop time as lift it—and us and the characters (who listen as they continuing sewing) out of mundane, everyday experience. Yet the story isn’t cathartic, contrary to what the movies condition us to expect. Andrée’s fable has more to do with process and perseverance than with gratification. You can tell from the looks of irritation on some of her colleagues’ faces that her point wasn’t especially well taken or necessarily understood. It’s in the aftermath of this narrative within the narrative that Deville whispers his thesis. – NPT