“A Radiant Girl” is set in Paris in 1942, but you’d hardly know it from spending time with the film’s 19-year-old protagonist, Irene (Rebecca Marder) — at least not to begin with. Irene is, as the title suggests, a lovely young woman, practically vibrating with joie de vivre. An aspiring actor, she spends her days rehearsing for the entrance exam to the prestigious Paris Conservatory, which leaves her just about enough time to argue charmingly but lovingly with her tight-knit French-Jewish family, and tentatively pursue romance with a dishy young doctor (in one amusing scene, she attempts to fail an eye test in order to have an excuse to see him again). In a nutshell, Irene is somebody thoroughly determined to live every moment to its fullest.
These kinds of bright-eyed lead characters, whose defining trait is their insistent need to seize each and every single day in a keen and vice-like grip, are a long-standing staple of indie film. Where exactly they land on the spectrum from endearing to annoying, depends to an enormous degree on both the actor who plays them and the context in which their zesty enthusiasm for life plays out. Fortunately, in the case of French actor Sandrine Kiberlain’s directorial debut, both factors work in the film’s favor.
Newcomer Marder’s performance is a thoroughly engaging one. She manages to demonstrate both screen presence and likability, despite a role which requires her to represent youthful optimism to an almost symbolic degree. You can easily imagine a less talented actor faltering; Irene’s naiveté and freshness are certainly plausible but not necessarily fashionable qualities in the current cinematic landscape, where teenagers tend to be only too self-aware.
Marder’s open-hearted performance is given a substantial assist by the way it contrasts with the period backdrop of the film, which Kiberlain strategically keeps at a slight remove for the majority of the film’s runtime. Kiberlain is interested in the timelessness of teenage dreams (with a few deliberately anachronistic soundtrack choices almost threatening to make this point too loudly). Irene’s preoccupation with young love and her hopes for the future are those of almost any young person; Kiberlain’s thesis is that these are universal concerns, regardless of whether your adolescence is blighted by World War II or not.
The contrast between the severity of the looming threat that Irene seems determined to ignore for as long as possible, and the lightness of her way of being in the world, is part of what helps her “Amélie”-esque outlook register as so moving. We sense that there is a degree of defense mechanism to her blithe spirit, that the only way she knows how to deal with encroaching danger is to not deal with it.
Marder’s gutsy lead turn is ably supported by a fine ensemble cast ranging from veterans (André Marcon) to other relative newcomers that we can expect to see more from (former child actor Anthony Bajon is particularly good as Irene’s brother).
Craft echoes the film’s psychological strategy: from locations to hair and makeup and from costumes to the art department, we aren’t drowned in period detail, with much of the film having a timeless look — the intent seems to be to convey the sense that Paris in 1942 and Paris now aren’t so different after all, when you get right down to what really matters.
Selected for the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics Week in 2021, prospects for planned roll-out in New York and L.A. followed by a national release seem fair, especially if marketing is able to leverage a potential best female newcomer César award for nominee Marder (this is an award that Kiberlain herself won early in her career in 1996, for her turn in Laetitia Masson’s “To Have or Not”). Either way, this is a promising debut from actor-turned-director Kiberlain, and in Marder, we may be witnessing the birth of a new leading lady in French cinema.