One Day You'll Understand
Dear Zachary: A Letter to A Son About His Father
Jeanne Moreau has reigned in French films since 1950, sensual, brainy, wryly dangerous, free. She was a woman whom men sometimes didn't dare to fantasize about, and for some women she figured as an agent of reprisal. All these qualities were heightened by her talent and technique. (Before she entered films, she was schooled in the theater, an ingénue at the Comédie Française.) But time has had its way with Jeanne Moreau, too, and now she appears as a grandmother. In fact, a Jewish grandmother.
The film, One Day You'll Understand, has a story by Jérôme Clément and Dan Franck, from a novel by Clément. Amos Gitai, the renowned Israeli director who spent ten years in France and then went home to Haifa, returned to France to make this film. The subject is the deepening awareness in latter-day French people of Jewish descent about what happened under the German occupation. This was also the subject of Claude Miller's A Secret, recently discussed here, but that film was mostly about the discovery of past facts. Gitai's film does some factual discovering, too, but essentially it is about darkness--not the facts of evil themselves so much as the shadows that some of us leave on discomfiting facts in order to get through our lives. Of course (hence this film) there is a counter-urge to know--the burrowing belief that one's life is askew unless unwelcome facts are brought to mind. The darkness is then explored.
Darkness, literally, is a key visual element in Gitai's film, as used through the camera of Caroline Champetier. In the very first sequence, a man, touched with shadow, moves through the Shoah Memorial in Paris. (On the soundtrack there is gentle music of Jewish flavor.) On the Wall of Names, in somewhat less shadow, the man finds the name he is looking for. Thus, sheerly with light and shadow, Gitai hints at his theme.
The man is Victor Bastien (intensely played by Hippolyte Girardot), who has been troubled about his origins for some time--ever since he saw the televised broadcasts of Klaus Barbie's trial in 1987 twenty years earlier. Most of the film continues back in that year, when Barbie's trial was on television. Victor, married and with two children, is aware of his mother's Jewish background but has hardly delved into it. He has clearly wanted the past to be past. But the Barbie business unsettles him. He has a sister, Tania, who was baptized Catholic and who is equally unsettled by the Barbie atmosphere. They look through family papers and discover a letter that their father wrote during the occupation to prove his Aryan descent. Disturbed, Victor goes to their mother, Rivka (Moreau), for more information.
Rivka, smartly dressed and heavily accessorized, is hardly an old yenta in a babushka. Apparently she has become the chic woman that she is, a collector of objets d'art, as a kind of triumph over the past. Rivka doesn't tell Victor as much as he wants to know about her parents, Jews who died in Auschwitz. So, with his children (in their late teens), Victor visits the village, the very hotel, where his grandparents hid during the war and where they were arrested by the Germans. The hotel keeper recalls the arrest, and Gitai incises it with a succinct flashback. We don't see the grandparents themselves. We see boots on gravel and police dogs, we hear shots.
In time, Rivka, whose health is failing, comes to reveal matters secreted under her sophistication. On Yom Kippur she is in a synagogue with her grandchildren. Out of her pocketbook she takes the yellow star that she once wore and slips it to her grandson. The oppressive badge of identity becomes sacred.
Near the end of the film, once again in the present day, Victor, now aware of where he comes from, now a more complete if more burdened man, visits a government office where compensation is being paid to the French Jews who were deported, or to their descendants. As the clerk ticks off the checklist of Victor's family's possessions, past lives are transmuted into records.
For his last shot Gitai views Paris at night, a slow pan from the Eiffel Tower over the light-flecked city. It furthers his theme of light persisting against darkness. Throughout the film he maintains this dark-light tension, often letting the camera glide through scenes rather than editing, to preserve this tension. So One Day You'll Understand is not exclusively a picture about the Holocaust. It is about a contradiction: human discomfort with some truths and human hunger for them. The instance here is acknowledgment of the fate of French Jews under the German occupation. The story, as film stories go, is simple: the implications are not.
Moreau's role is not large, but it is the linchpin, connecting shadow and light. She makes Rivka a woman whose idea of nobility is to enclose troublesome issues with elegance. As usual, she doesn't merely take the role, she possesses it. As usual, she brings to it not only her talent but her career. As usual, she makes her performance seem the reason why she has done everything else up to now.
Some years ago I spent an hour with Moreau in her trailer at a film location just outside Paris. (Her English is fluent; her mother was English.) Her day's work was finished, and she was relaxed. I asked her how the film was going, how she liked working with this director, Jean-Louis Richard. She said that it was going well enough and that she couldn't work well with a director unless she had slept with him. I congratulated Monsieur Richard. Moreau smiled and said that they had once been married and had a fifteen-year-old son together.
I turned to the subject of acting, asked questions, took notes. Her answers still resonate. Here are some of them.
"It is not possible to do theater and stage acting together. On stage one feels extroverted, selfish. In films one feels personal, private."
"Acting is more difficult for the screen because it deals with mysteries of self and feeling that must be revealed. Rehearsal in the theater is the reverse. It is like a hidden war--fighting against yourself. A good director in the theater is interested in what you hide. Hiding is less easy in films."
"Actors are very lazy. They think they are doing their best when it's easiest for them."
"I love Jules and Jim. I have not seen La Notte."
"Antonioni creates an atmosphere on the set. He doesn't direct in detail. He only wants to 'see what shows.' Godard, on the other hand, takes actors from A to B, and so on. He supplied the technique for [Jean-Paul] Belmondo who has only instincts."
"I would like to make films with Bergman and Fritz Lang. I almost did one with Bergman, but he decided he couldn't work outside Sweden. He wants me to learn Swedish."
She didn't. Nor did she work with Lang. (The film she was making at the moment was Mata Hari, which was not released in the United States.) La Notte, which she had never seen, is for many of us a masterwork, due in part to her performance.
A documentary called Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father starts as one sort of picture and becomes another. The director Kurt Kuenne begins with a shot of a hand writing a letter: "Dear Zachary, Your father was...." Then Kuenne's voice-over--he also shot and edited--tells us that he set out to create as full a portrait of Zachary's father as possible. The father, a doctor named Andrew Bagby, died young, when Zachary was a baby. The idea of a documentary about a deceased man, composed of relatives' and friends' comments, places visited, parties attended, loves and likes, done as a gift for a son when he matures, seemed imaginative and apt. By the time Zachary was grown up, a lot of those people would be dispersed or gone, and in any case the wrench of parting, so pertinent to the film, would long since have subsided. Besides, the film would support a belief that very many lives, probably most of them, would be interesting if we could really know them.
But the film soon alters. This is not another "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" memorializing the obscure. Andrew Bagby was murdered, presumably by Dr. Shirley Turner, his girlfriend, with whom he had split and who, after his death, went on to bear his son. The gruesome story was splashed around the media. Kuenne's picture changes from a modern "Elegy" into an account of tabloidism, legal maneuvers, and family agonies.
Shirley, after Bagby's death, fled to Newfoundland, where she and Andrew had studied medicine. There she had her child, Zachary. She was jailed twice, as part of extradition proceedings, and was released twice without bail because of legal complications. During this time Shirley granted visitation rights for Zachary to Kate and David Bagby in Canada, the parents of the man she presumably killed. Kate and David, admirable both, are on screen more than anyone else, as they ought to be. They are the true protagonists of this tragedy made chillingly ludicrous by legalities.
Shirley Turner never did come to trial. (The whole story was blazoned in the press, so I'm not revealing a secret.) Just before she was to be returned to America, to be tried and almost certainly imprisoned, she leaped into the Atlantic with Zachary. Thus, all along Kuenne has been writing a letter to a dead boy. In fact, toward the end he says he could have titled his picture Dear Kate and David.
Foreknowledge of the facts, from the media coverage of the case or anywhere else, doesn't hurt the picture. Kuenne is a clever film-maker, tuned in to what is hip and hot in editing. Anyone who sees television commercials will recognize his overlapping shots, his divided utterances, even the flipping lips in still photographs (to emphasize the droning legalisms of some procedures). Kuenne keeps us watching not only because of his sleight-of-hand editing, but because he has chosen a lot of good interviewees and has deftly braided their comments and sound bites with footage of Andrew himself at parties, dances, even with patients at the hospital where he worked in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Kuenne might have stopped when he, so to speak, retitled his picture: the last several minutes are repetitious. But Dear Zachary is a slick account of ancient crevices in the human psyche rendered in cutting-edge cinematic style.
This article originally ran in the November 19, 2008 issue of the magazine.