In under 20 minutes of screen time, Jeanne Moreau supplies One Day You’ll Understand with an otherwise absent emotional weight of reconciliation to the anguished history of WWII France. At 80, Moreau is deep into a phase of supporting roles leaning toward revered grande dame territory (recently as Melvil Poupaud’s noble granny in Time to Leave), but here she transcends the sentimental scene where her gravely ill Rivka, a non-observant Jew whose parents died at Auschwitz, brings her grandchildren to a Paris synagogue on Yom Kippur. After loftily pressing her grandson to oppose intolerance, she pecks him on the cheek and presents him with the cloth Star of David she was forced to wear under Nazi occupation. Director Amos Gitai holds on Moreau in an overemphatic raised-chin close-up, but the actress trumps the icon when she turns to the boy and asks with an insistent smile, “Shall I hold it for you?...Put it in your pocket.”
Moreau’s elegant but quirky matriarch, hiding her cigarettes from her adult children and doting on her middlebrow bric-a-brac and costume jewelry, is dangerously close to a collection of cutesy tics masking early-life trauma, but her muted concern for cultural legacy and memory embodies the movie’s largest ambitions. Unfortunately, it’s not about her. Set largely in the late ‘80s, the scenario centers on Rivka’s comfortably bourgeois son Victor (Hippolyte Girardot) and his obsession with the arrest and death of her parents, along with his own Gentile father’s letter asserting his “Aryan” status to the Vichy government. Possibly to evoke both Rivka’s evasive silence on her painful past and Victor’s efforts to reveal it, Gitai makes inordinate use of one-take, pan-heavy interiors—at the outset, mother and son monitor the televised trial of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie in mirroring sequences.
Based on an autobiographical novel by Jérôme Cléments, the script often produces platitudes when the tracking comes to a halt—“You can’t change the past,” Victor’s wife (Emmanuelle Devos) whispers—but Gitai does better by bit characters who aren’t burdened with symbolism: A mourner grousing about a by-the-book rabbi, a chatty antiques dealer pricing Rivka’s gewgaws and paintings. But Victor’s visit to the village hotel where his grandparents were seized precipitates the director’s biggest miscalculation, via a flashback of the old couple dancing in their hideaway, interrupted by guns, jackboots and militia-dog paws on gravel; it’s a Shoah Lite montage.
An Israeli who was based in France earlier in his career, Gitai aims to confront his secondary homeland with its responsibility in facilitating the Holocaust beyond official apologies and reparations. In an effectively low-key final sequence, Victor meets with a pair of bureaucrats who attempt a bean-counting estimation of his murdered forebears’ “worth,” but retreats to a window view from which Parisian streets hum on. Further disadvantaged by dimly lit compositions as well as its inchoate dramatic shape, One Day You’ll Understand fails to match the inspiration of Moreau’s vibrant miniature.