Promise of a New Role
by Jay S. Jacobs
“With maternal love, life makes a promise at dawn that it can never hold. You are forced to eat cold food until your days end. After that, each time a woman holds you in her arms and against her chest, these are merely condolences. You always come back to yell at your mother’s grave like an abandoned dog. Never again, never again, never again.”
With that quote, French author Romain Gary described his complicated relationship with his mother and how their love had somewhat ruined him for other women. The line comes from his 1961 memoir La Promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn), a classic in his native France.
When casting his new film version of the book (it was also made as a film in 1970), writer/director Eric Barbier knew he had to find an actress with the strength, eccentricity, charisma, tenderness and backbone to inspire such conflicted passion.
Barbier knew he had to look no further than Charlotte Gainsbourg.
The acclaimed French actress and singer, the heiress of French pop-cultural royalty, with a strong and varied body of work which goes back to her childhood – she would be perfect to play Nina Kacew. (Romain Gary was a pen name; Romain Kacew was the author’s given name.)
The film was an epic look at Gary’s childhood and young adulthood. Gainsbourg would be the constant in the film, with three actors playing Gary at different points in his life, though Pierre Niney spent most time on screen as Gary as a young adult.
As you can tell by the quote above, Romain and Nina had a complicated relationship. She loved him unconditionally and believed in him totally, however she could be demanding and even sometimes cruel. She was determined that her son would grow up to be extraordinary – a best-selling writer, a military hero, a diplomat. Nina always put his wants, skills and her ambitions for him ahead of her own needs.
While as a French woman she was of course familiar with Romain Gary and his career, Gainsbourg had never read much of his work, specifically she hadn’t read Promise at Dawn.
“I read it for the purpose of the film,” Gainsbourg explained, “even though it’s quite a classic in France. Kids now read it in school. Because he was very right wing at the end, he wasn’t that popular when I was a kid in school. I don’t know if it was his political views, but I think it was about that. So, anyway, he’s become a reference today, but I had missed out on it. I read it when I got the script.”
She found herself intrigued by the intense, offbeat dynamic of the family and Gary’s nuanced and varied descriptions. The book was sometimes tragic, sometimes comic, sometimes passionate, sometimes surreal and sometimes devastatingly realistic. She was captured by the way that Barbier (and co-writer Marie Aynard) were able to translate and streamline the book for the screen.
“Reading the script, I thought he did such a great job adapting,” Gainsbourg explained. “I find it always so tricky to know what to take out, because you can’t make a five-hour film. The focus on the mother was for me very interesting, because I was about to play that part. I was just so moved. It’s quite rare when you’re moved by a script, you’re emotionally really, really [engaged]…. It got to me. That for me is the best sign to be certain that you want to be part of a film.”
Nina was a very strong and independent woman, with artistic, fashion and business skills. She ran a popular boutique and later a successful hotel. Yet she completely dedicated her life to her son; probably to an unhealthy extent. She was obsessed with Romain not only succeeding but being the absolute best at everything he did.
“She doesn’t have a man in her life,” Gainsbourg explained. “The father is a very obscure figure. She tells a story about an actor, but you don’t really know if it’s true. Anyway, in real life Nina is not the exact replica of Romain Gary’s mother. He didn’t talk about another brother that he had and other stuff that’s not at all in the [movie, which was] in the book.”
What was brought from the book is the tremendous effect that Gary’s mother played on his life. Even when she wasn’t always physically there in his life – when he is a young writer trying to make it in Paris, or when he was a flight navigator in World War II – she still was a shadow which covered his entire being. He was constantly trying to please her, to be worthy of her expectations for him, even in the face of cruel reality.
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Do you think she’s a good mother or a bad mother?’” Gainsbourg said. “It’s both. The dedication to her son, of course it’s unhealthy, but it’s what will give him the confidence that he has. It’s thanks to her that he became an author. It destroyed a lot of things in him. Well, not destroyed, but it meant that him having other women in his life was a challenge.”
Nina had a complicated view on the women in Romain’s life. In general, she found them to be distractions from his pure course. At the same time, she was somewhat bemused by his success as a lothario, which she felt was a very French attribute. As an immigrant, she embraced the lifestyles of her new home. The fact that her son was a bit of a ladies’ man just showed that he fit in to the culture. As long as he did not take them seriously. She was the only woman in his life over the long haul.
“Her only focus is achieving a goal with her son,” Gainsbourg said. “I don’t think it’s projecting herself in her son. But, it’s still this idea of success. He has to have success. There is no question of being in the middle. It’s not good enough.”
The idea of a parent seeing the artistic promise in their child is not one that was foreign to Gainsbourg. Her parents were quite famous in the arts. Father Serge Gainsbourg was an iconic French singer/songwriter and mother Jane Birkin was a popular British actress, model and singer. In the United States, the two are possibly best remembered for their sexy 1969 duet “Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus).”
However, unlike Nina, Gainsbourg’s parents did not pressure her to get into the arts, though both did play a role in starting her long artistic careers – both as an actress and as a singer.
“It just happened,” Gainsbourg says. “It was this weird set of obvious circumstances. My father wrote a song. It was written for me and for him. It was that duo ‘Lemon Incest.’ He asked me if I wanted to, but it was so obvious that I did. To me it was just getting in a studio and singing a song. That was it. I didn’t go through the release of the song or that scandal it had. I was in a boarding school and didn’t hear about anything.”
The scandal – that père Gainsbourg would sing a song with that title with his young daughter – ended up briefly being controversial, but eventually was a bit of a tempest in a teacup. The song was a huge hit in their native France. Also, it inadvertently led to Charlotte’s first acting role.
“In my first film, my mother now says that she pushed it a little bit,” Gainsbourg explained. “She understood that if I was going to be known only as my father’s daughter singing that song, it would be great for me to have something else. To have something of my own. So, she very, very discretely and very subtly told me that there was a casting going on for Paroles et musique, which is the first film I did.”
That film was the beginning of a long acting career, in which she has been in over 50 movies, including My Wife is an Actress, Jane Eyre, Melancholia, Ismael’s Ghosts, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Little Thief, The Science of Sleep and many other films – both in France and America. She has gone on to also record five albums as a singer. It all stems from that early audition.
“I went there, but I went there on my own,” Gainsbourg continued. “I went there because I guess I was hoping for something, but it wasn’t very clear. I was only 12, so I don’t really remember where I had my mind.
“My parents never pushed me,” Gainsbourg insisted. “It was never something like an obligation. I didn’t do any artistic after-school things. It was obvious that we were going to all choose artistic jobs, my sisters and me. Even my brother now, my father’s last son went into music, too. It’s kind of the only thing we could do in a weird way.”
Also, in a weird way, in Promise at Dawn it is interesting is that we are seeing Nina, but we are seeing her through her son’s eyes, which is not necessarily exactly who she was. While she agrees that to be the case, as an actress, Gainsbourg did not take that into consideration in her portrayal of the woman.
“I really took her as a character the way I read it,” Gainsbourg said.
Of course, the role also had a much more personal connection with Gainsbourg.
“It had such a resonance with my own story, having a grandmother that came from Russia, exactly in the same circumstances,” Gainsbourg explained. “Escaping from the Russian Revolution, but then going through the second World War as a Jew. The parallels that I could make were so obvious.”
Also, like Nina, her grandparents made their way to France and were entranced by their new home.
“[There] was this passion about France and Paris being the capital of culture,” she said. “They were musicians. It’s that same goal, that same challenge. My grandmother was a real influence in portraying Nina. I didn’t know Gary’s mother, so I had to do with what I knew and what felt very familiar.”
Another thing that Gainsbourg’s grandmother shared with Nina was the specter of anti-Semitism. However, even with that dark history, Gainsbourg did not find it hard to explore as an actress.
“Why would it be hard to play that in a film? It’s my job. That’s what makes the story and the character interesting.”
She also felt, rightly so, that the movie did not dwell on the subject. It was always there, and sometimes it raised its head in more destructive ways than other times for the mother and son – but it was not the main focus of their lives.
“The thing is, in the film, we don’t really talk a lot about anti-Semitism,” Gainsbourg said. “We understand that of course it is going on. There are parts of that. That’s why they escape from Poland. At the same time, she suddenly takes him to an Orthodox church, and she has a special relation with the Pope. She has a funny relationship to religion, in the book, anyway.
“To answer your question about anti-Semitism today, I think it’s very useful to talk about it,” Gainsbourg continued. “To show how it all began, even though we have many, many films done on that subject, it’s still very much something we need to do.”
It is not easy to portray the same person over decades of their life. Therefore, Gainsbourg did something that she had never done before in her 35 years of acting. She wore a wig, aging makeup and prosthetics for the role.
“It’s the first time I’ve had to go that far in a change in a character,” she said. “It began when we first tried on a few costumes, just to see what she could look like. It was before even the little boy was found. It was quite early on. I put on a period dress, and I didn’t look the part at all. I was too thin. I looked too fragile. It appeared straight away that I needed bosoms, I needed larger hips, to be fatter. That whole corpulence made total sense. I remember that putting on the fake breasts, fake stomach, fake belly, all of that, it helped me so much to get in character.”
Changing her physical appearance ended up being not only necessary, but actually rather freeing for the actress, helping her to disappear into the role.
“It was a little bit like overacting to me, because it was so far out,” Gainsbourg continued. “At the same time, I asked the director if I could fake a Polish accent while I spoke French. He didn’t believe it. He said, ‘It won’t work. People will see you as they know you. They’ll only hear the accent. They won’t believe the character.’ So, until the very last minute, it was a big challenge to persuade him that was what I wanted to do.
“That also helped me to get into character. Both the corpulence, [and] of course the wig, but that’s more of an obstacle, because you can’t touch your head in the same way. It doesn’t live the same way. But yeah, the aging prosthetics, all of that helped me a great deal. It was a bit like pantomime. Sometimes I felt like that.”
As stated earlier, as an immigrant, Nina believed in France almost as an ideal. The idea of France and being French was vital to her being. Which does not surprise Gainsbourg at all.
“Again, I refer to my own grandparents,” Gainsbourg said, “because that was the holy grail. They only talked about French culture. It was the only place to go to. I know a lot of Jews went to America, but I remember my grandmother talking about how France and the French language and French culture was the only thing to get close to. Nina, in that sense, is exactly the same. With her Victor Hugo ambition, I thought it was very funny, because it rang a bell.”
That ambition not only helped to make her son a famous author, but also reserved a place in literary history for herself as well. Discussing why he wrote about his mother, Romain Gary once said, “To make my mother exist, I must make her a celebrity.”
Nearly 40 years after Gary’s death – and 75 after Nina’s – with Promise at Dawn, Charlotte Gainsbourg helps to keep that effort alive.
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 30, 2019.
Photos ©2019. Courtesy of Menemsha Films. All rights reserved.