Sometimes, the theme for a View From Home column derives not from a think piece or deep connection on my part but simply from the arbitrary vicissitudes of a distributor’s release schedule.
So it was that in my mailbox, within days of each other, I received two foreign-language DVDs from Film Movement that begged to be reviewed together. A Radiant Girl ($20.44) and Radiance ($21.49) share not only a glowing title but a certain romantic ambience on their cover art, each depicting characters in a state of embrace.
The similarities end there, and in fact, anyone expecting a courtship drama from the misleading DVD jacket of A Radiant Girl will need to dig a little deeper. Premiering at Cannes in 2021, the debut feature from longtime French actor Sandrine Kiberlain stars Rebecca Marder as Irène, a free-spirited 19-year-old Parisian in the final stages of preparing for her entrance exam for an esteemed acting conservatory. Onstage and around the house, in a middle-class dwelling she shares with three generations of her family, Irène is a delightfully disruptive force of nature, asking impertinent questions and invading the spaces of her accountant father André, studious older brother Igor, and stealthily hip grandmother Marceline.
Her inexhaustible energy can be a bit much for those around her, even in the dead of night (“You breathe too much,” offers Igor, with whom she shares a bedroom), and she enjoys getting a rise out of people. She occasionally suffers legitimate fainting spells, which she mocks by pretending to collapse in a playfully defiant parlor trick. When she’s taken to a doctor for her condition, and she finds herself attracted to a young optometrist, she pretends to be unable to read an eye chart, so she can see him again. She could be a Judy Bloom character dropped into an Ozu movie.
At first, the action of A Radiant Girl feels so contemporary that we’re not sure when the movie is set. But a slow accretion of details reveals that we are, in fact, in 1942, and that Irène’s family is Jewish in occupied France. For all of the rambunctious humor in this coming-of-age teen dramedy, ambient threats metastasize in the background of her life. First, government-issued ID cards brand them as Jews. Then come the yellow stars they are required to wear in public. Pretty soon their radios and telephones and bicycles are confiscated, and businesses start to refuse them service.
The brilliance of Kiberlain’s approach lies in the way we experience known history afresh, rendering it all the more shattering. What, at first, seems almost a non-story — what’s the worst that can happen from a new ID card? — becomes the story. Like the slowly boiling frog in the old analogy, Irène and her family suffer one indignity after another, acclimating them to second-class citizens but blindsiding them to the genocide that will come. This is the bureaucracy of fascism, and the message is resonant beyond its almost-nebulous time period: It can happen here, and this is how it happens.
Yet even as jackboots begin to patrol the streets, Irène’s cockeyed optimism epitomizes the movie’s title — and culminates in a final shot that will stick with you forever. A Radiant Girl is a stunning and essential first feature.
Radiance, a 2017 feature from Japan’s Naomi Kawase, starts just as promisingly. Ayame Misaki plays Misako, a young woman who writes audio descriptions of movies for the visually impaired. While testing her latest work on a focus group of blind moviegoers, she clashes with Masaya (Masatoshi Nagase), a onetime prizewinning photographer with only vestiges of his vision remaining, and whose criticisms of Kawase’s descriptions are blunt enough to be hurtful. And yet Misako and Masaya, despite or because of the tough back stories that inform their personalities, begin to form an unlikely bond.
The heart of Radiance is most certainly in the right place, but Kawase’s schematic storytelling leans into melodrama and on-the-nose symbolism. There’s a surface prettiness to the cinematography, but Radiance settles into a languor that can border on rigor mortis, presenting as a draggy parody of art-house pretention.
Its best sequences are shot entirely in tight close-ups in a nondescript screening room, as Masaya and other blind audience members present their honest critiques of Misako’s lyrical, sometimes over-descriptive writing. It’s fascinating to see how the sausage is made, and the importance that even minor changes in diction can have on the emotional tenor of a scene. In this environment, Misako is the disadvantaged character, because it is impossible for her to see the world, so to speak, through the eyes of her demographic. It’s a humble lesson in restraint that most filmmakers, even when directing movies for the sighted masses, might want to heed.