How Boys Grow Up
by Pauline Kael
Promise at Dawn starts from a clever commercial premise: to use Romain Gary’s autobiographical memoir for an anti-Freudian movie — a hero celebrating the memory of his wild, wonderful Jewish mother. The story is of how a Russian-Jewish actress (Melina Mercouri) who has had an affair with the famous stage and screen star Ivan Mosjoukine and borne him a son, Romain, makes a life for herself and the boy by grit and con as they go from Russia to Poland to France. However, for a director who used to know how to be forthright, if crude, Jules Dassin tells the story remarkably badly. The film is narrated back and forth in time; but Dassin’s feeling for the different periods isn’t strong enough to clue us in on where we are and when, so the different parts of the past run together in a blur, as if his time machine had got too oily. The production is elegant and prettily photographed, but this is the sort of attempt at shameless nostalgia that requires emotional warmth and a delicate feeling for detail — qualities that the director is notably lacking in. Instead, he relies on the latest fashions in mechanized lyricism — slow-motion sequences and freeze frames. The techniques keep saying, This moment should be treasured. But, like children told to remember too much and not allowed to discover anything for themselves, we feel nothing and remember nothing.
And there’s a big problem; Melina Mercouri. It’s not that you can’t believe her as a Jewish mother but that you can’t believe her as a human being. She’s not a person, she’s a star. It’s one thing for a little boy to see his mother as bigger than life; it’s another for her to be bigger than life. With Mercouri in the role, the movie has almost nothing to do with the common experience of looking back and perceiving the differences between our childish projections of our parents as giants and what our parents must actually have been like. Mercouri more than lives up to the projection, so there’s no contrast; it’s as if this boy’s fantasies of his mother were true. It’s perhaps a classic case of how miscasting alters meaning; the story of a devoted mother turns into the story of a great broad. In her dramatic scenes and in her closeups, Mercouri is more subdued than in her other recent appearances, but that’s like saying Anthony Quinn is more subdued. She’s amazing and likable but she’s got so much presence she can’t play a role — she overpowers it. Whatever she does becomes a tour de force and, soon, a self-caricature. Mercouri has always seemed too virile to be sexy. Like Quinn, she’s terrifyingly energetic; just looking at her, you feel as if you’re being whomped on the back.
Mercouri was splendid seen for the first time, in Stella (perhaps not coincidentally, directed by Michael Cacoyannis, who directed Quinn in Zorba the Greek), but the fortified presence that makes stars like this so exciting in their first big roles is what wrecks them when they attempt a quiet performance. Mercouri has only to appear for us to receive the impact of that contagious, tempestuous personality, and, whatever she does, she always seems to be trying to play a normal hearty, hot nymphomaniac. The place for stars like this is, of course, on the musical-comedy stage. But what if, like Melina Mercouri, they can’t sing and can’t dance? I don’t know the answer to how she can be used, and neither, obviously, does her director-husband, Dassin. She’s like one of those faces that Fellini flashes on — one look is enough. The second time around, she eats up the camera. Quinn, who is probably more talented than she is but who has been in many more star roles, has become an abomination; he needs a personality transplant.
One feels that there is a genuine love for and admiration of Mercouri behind the production, but Dassin hasn’t expressed it in terms of the boy’s love for his mother. And Mercouri isn’t convincing as a mother. This isn’t a matter of whether an actress in private life has or has not had children; Lauren Bacall, who has children, probably couldn’t play a convincing loving mother, either. It’s a matter of a particular kind of personality-star’s emotional range. Mercouri doesn’t have the patience a mother develops. Mercouri (even that name!) is always agitated and restless; she’s never at peace, so we can’t see what a child means to her. The boy’s nurse assumes the maternal role. Roaring around with the boy, whacking people with her handbag, scowling and wheezing and making deep throaty noises, Mercouri is more Auntie Marne than adoring mother. And Auntie Marne is essentially a transvestite, not a woman. Mercouri is too strident; she projects more than one needs to project to one’s own child. Even a tigress fears for her young, but there is no fear in Mercouri’s maternity. The same restless indomitability that makes her unconvincing as a loving mother prevents her from being a great screen actress; the absence of the quality of repose is fatal. She does too much and it means too little, because it’s obvious that she’s acting out her own temperament.
Those of us who loved our mothers remember the many times we didn’t love them, but the movie is all on one adoring level, so there’s no sense of truth in it. And there’s no irony in the film’s point of view. If this tornado of a woman is a boy’s only parent and he survives unscathed, that is, of course, remarkable. But if the boy Romain (François Raffoul) doesn’t turn into something more definite and more unusual than the decent young fellow (Assaf Dayan) we see, then the movie undercuts its own anti-Freudian premise. In comparison with Mercouri, normality isn’t much of anything; it suggests that he has been crushed. (I kept thinking, This is the life story of Romain Gary, the man who made Birds in Peru.)
The film is rather inert; the wartime sequences are singularly amateurish; and in the welter of accents it hasn’t been made clear who’s meant to be Jewish and who isn’t. Yet there are moments of energy and humor — though they’re all related not to the mother-love theme but to love of theatre and films. In one sequence, Mercouri, at home in Cracow, plays Marguerite Gautier to her little son’s Armand, and when Armand leaves, after contemptuously slinging banknotes at her, she moans peerlessly; Mercouri does have a fine free-style sense of farce. Most of the best scenes are, surprisingly, from Dassin as an actor. He has appeared in his own films before, adequately as the Italian safecracker in Rififi, inadequately as the earnest, stuffed American in Never on Sunday, but as Mosjoukine he does several satires on “subtle” acting that are like good revue skits. Probably the movie works best in these stylized sequences because, without an actress who could reveal to us the feelings that the child doesn’t perceive, the material is basically musical-comedy material.
The New Yorker, February 6, 1971