Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Based on an incident in Romain Gary's novel Promise At Dawn, this is a fascinating piece of film-making. Opening with a note-perfect reconstruction of a 1940s era production, black and white, credits at the start, switching from archive footage to model shots of Spitfires, it demonstrates a technical sophistication that is carried through the film.

There are three credited directors - Henning Carlsen, Kirsten Dehlholm, and Morten Boesdal Halvorsen. Three broad sequences too, a mixture of newsreel, Vilna in the past, the Free French Air Force receiving a royal visit. It's based on an allegedly autobiographical tale, adapted by Richard Raskin, and there are so many people involved that it's hard to say who is responsible for what. Safer, indeed, quite accurate to say that this many cooks have created a stunning stew. There's the young Romain, a prediction of his fate, the man to whom he makes a promise - the one-eyed Mr. Piekielny, played, shot, with a Lynchian distance. The floor made of exercise mats recalls the deliberate stageiness of Dogville and Manderlay.

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At about seven minutes it's got a surprisingly large cast, a well judged tone, let's call it 'magical realism' or 'romanticised autobiography'. The young Romain is "special, you know", he's "going to be famous one day". Mr. Piekielny extracts a promise from him, and in 1944 while he serves with the Lorraine Squadron he has the chance to keep it. The complexity of the piece never causes it to stumble - even a literal crossing of streams of film is well handled, well judged. Laust Trier-Mrk's cinematography and Jacob Kirkegaard's original music serve to tie the work of the three directors together well. At least, one assumes - this is a film one suspects could have a 'making of' five, ten times as long, and still be satisfying.

At their best, short films are showcases for technical excellence and entertaining and intriguing in themselves. Promise is certainly the former, but not quite the latter. It would be churlish to complain that it's a remake of sorts - there's apparently a 1970 feature based on the novel, but as with many French films the odds of international attention are slight. It's fairer to be concerned about its studied nature - as a collaborative effort it's closer to the deliberations of a committee. Certainly all seem to be well represented but there's a coolness to it. That reserve may well be appropriate, given the cinema it does such a good job of impersonating, but it makes it hard to engage with it. Despite this, it's well served by its quality. It might be interesting to see if it could be sustained across a longer work, using the conventions of contemporaneous cinema to relate incidents from Gary's text, but even if this is all we get it shows such promise that it will suffice.

Reviewed on: 26 Feb 2011
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When an impoverished mother promises her son will become great, only an old man believes her, and he makes the boy make a promise of his own.
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Director: Morten BH, Kirsten Dehlholm, Henning Carlsen

Writer: Richard Raskin

Starring: Jacob Ottensten, Emmanuel Limal, Rune T Kidde, Sabrina Ruiz

Year: 2010

Runtime: 7 minutes

Country: Denmark


Glasgow 2011

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