“A Radiant Girl” is the story of a young woman at that liminal stage in life when it seems that infinite possibilities stretch into the future. We know her possibilities are about to disappear because we see who and where, and when she is: A Jewish girl in Paris in 1942. Like her father and grandmother, we see the warning signs making it even more heart-wrenching to see how hopeful and happy she is. The film’s period details are understated, with very little emphasis on the cars or the technology that separates us from the past. Costume designer Emmanuelle Youchnovski’s designs are near-timeless. The costumes never seem retro, increasing our sense of immediacy and connection. They could almost be seen on the streets today, like the classic blazer Irène wears for her job. We barely notice it, until near the end of the film when she turns and we see the jacket now has a yellow star.
“Radiant” is the right word to describe Rebecca Marder as Irène, an aspiring actress on the brink of first love. From her first seconds on-screen, we are immediately entranced by her open, trusting, vulnerable face. At first, it seems we are hearing her as herself, asking what we think of her, and accepting flowers and flowery words from a lover. But these are lines she’s preparing for an audition. The archaic word “bethink” is a clue. The tender love scene she is rehearsing is from L’Épreuve is a 1740 play by Pierre de Marivaux. Irène wants to study acting at the conservatory.
Irène lives with her increasingly worried father, André (André Marcon), her feisty and devoted grandmother Marceline (Françoise Widhoff), and her musician brother Igor (Anthony Bajon). André pleads with the conservatory officials to classify Irène as half-Jewish, hoping she will not be disqualified from applying. Marceline wants to protest being forced to have big, red letters spelling out “Jew” on her identification card. And Igor and Irène continue to exchange the kinds of bratty insults that remind us they are not far from childhood.