Cannes 2021 Review: Sandrine Kiberlain’s “A Radiant Girl” Shines in a Time of Darkness

There’s a spiral staircase from the loft apartment shared by the family at the center of “A Radiant Girl” in Sandrine Kiberlain’s touching feature directorial debut that takes on increasingly sinister dimension leading to the streets of Paris as the summer of 1942 wears on. You wouldn’t know it from the sunny disposition of Irene (Rebecca Marder), a carefree young woman who spends her days leaning into imaginary worlds anyway as an aspiring actress hoping to enlist in a conservatory, but her father Andre (André Marcon) does his best to protect her and her slightly older brother Igor (Anthony Bajon) from the growing pressure to identify as a Jew as the Nazi occupation starts to creep across Europe, facing fierce resistance from his wife Marceline (Francoise Widhoff) from even broaching the subject.

Ignorance is bliss for Irene, who might be told by her scene partner at school that picking up a little German might not be a terrible idea, but at 19, she is less concerned with world affairs than what’s going on immediately around her, losing herself completely in the scenes she’s preparing for her conservatory audition and flirting with a number of potential boyfriends, worrying about how to let the ones she isn’t interested in getting more serious with down easy. A year removed from Kiberlain’s 20-year-old daughter Suzanne Lindon telling a similar story of a young woman who dreams of a life in the theater and experiences a first love, albeit in the present day, in her directorial debut “Spring Blossom,” “A Radiant Girl” is particularly fascinating when seen in parallel, considering what it’s like to live without any fear of the future, though in “A Radiant Girl,” there is a certainty that it will not end well.

Kiberlain refrains from making much of the historical context when Nazis are only talked about in hushed tones — people who wonder whether the family is doing alright will often attach “…with everything that’s going on” to their remarks — and the film is shot in a very loose, contemporary style, brimming with bold colors where only the fashion of the times gives away the era, that compliments the free-spirited Irene, whose playfulness clearly is keeping her family from falling too deep into despair. However, as the burden grows on her father to let on more of what he knows, the idea that more harm than good may come out of preserving the protective cocoon around Irene and Igor intrigues and the director’s experience as an actress surely informs how gently and effectively she handles the larger theme of how much of Irene is able to shape her own experience versus how much it has been shaped for her.

Marder does indeed live up to the film’s title as the infectiously vivacious Irene, and “A Radiant Girl” is laced with enlivening bursts of creativity in its details regarding her time around the band of actors all working towards an acceptance at the conservatory and sketching out faceless portraits of herself in glasses in order to choose the right frames with the help of Jacques (Cyril Metzger), a comely Ph.D in training whose selection means more to her than what she’ll end up wearing. Making the most of a moment isn’t only a skill of Kiberlain’s, but a means of survival in “A Radiant Girl” when it’s clear there’s no assurances of how long it’ll last.

“A Radiant Girl” will screen at Cannes as part of the Semaine de la Critique on July 9th at 1:30 pm at Le Raimu and 9 pm at Alexandre III.