A love letter to the unknown woman, veteran director’s Patrice Leconte’s English language debut A Promise reaches a pinnacle of mushy romanticism.
A Sentimental Journey by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It seems that, over seventy years after his suicide, Stefan Zweig is undergoing something of a revival, what with Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, imaginatively conjectured out of the end-of-days glory of the Austrian novelist’s fictional universe, and now Patrice Leconte’s A Promise based on Zweig’s novella Journey Into The Past. It’s hard to believe Zweig would have penned such an anaemic, cliché-ridden romantic melodrama as Leconte, director of quirky arthouse films such as Ridicule, The Girl On The Bridge and The Widow Of Saint-Pierre, delivers here, but despite its auspicious literary genesis, it’s A Promise Leconte’s film can’t quite live up to.
Clever young student Friedrich (Richard Madden) starts work at an iron foundry in Frankfurt, working for the rich industrialist Karl Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman). Saving his sick boss’s life and sharing his life-threatening secret, the young man on the make is soon working his way up the ranks, delivering Hoffmeister’s orders to the board, and visiting the convalescing industrialist at home. It’s here that Friedrich meets his beautiful and much younger wife Lotte (Rebecca Hall). And after awkward afternoon teas and volunteering to tutor the Hoffmeisters’ son Otto, Friedrich finds himself promoted to Private Secretary and leaving his garret (and washer-woman lover) behind for a room in their mansion. Living under the same roof, and sharing intimacies over dessert and jigsaw puzzles, Friedrich and Lotte struggle to resist their feelings. Until an assignment sending him away to Mexico brings all their bridled emotions to the surface.
While much of A Promise is lifted from Zweig’s novella and his own life – his second wife Lotte was once his secretary with whom he had an affair under his wife’s nose – Zweig’s stories also contain a wealth of detail about contemporary Europe that only get a sideways glance here – from his kinsman Sigmund Freud to exile in the Americas and the rise of Nazism. Instead, Leconte reduces the novella to sheer romanticism, switching our focus from Friedrich’s fascination with his employer’s wife to Lotte’s desperate pining for her absent lover. From hands brushing on the banister to the desperate running along a railway platform, A Promise has all the trappings of an epic romance from Hollywood’s Golden Age. But despite a raft of classic French films under his belt, it’s Patrice Leconte’s first English language film, which perhaps explains the occasionally stilted pacing and seemingly directionless dialogue.
Nevertheless, based on the novella by an Austrian writer, filmed in Belgian but taking place in Germany, and made by a French crew in English, there’s something exquisitely European about A Promise – with its early 20th century fashions and its passing from a structured old world of wealthy industrialists and struggling students to a new mechanised world of free market globalisation and go-getting aspiration. Perhaps it’s the business meetings held, momentarily, for a melancholy piano melody, or the levelling dread of war, but Leconte does succeed in conjuring up a pan-European kind of beauty, unaffectedly elegant and intelligently refined. There are also some intriguing, if sadly neglected, plot turns – such as the husband who pushes his wife and her lover together, only, in unbearable pain to pull them apart again. Or the lovers petrified in time, barely able to find their way back to each other. But they’re over almost before they’ve even begun – drowned in a tide of overblown sentimentality.
Almost an anti First World War film, A Promise tells the opposite story to those ten million men on both sides who fell in the trenches – of the man who disappears for years, but returns to find his lover again and reignite their romance. It’s a surprisingly happy-ever-after ending from the Jewish novelist that took his own life, no longer able to find any hope for humanity. But like Wes Anderson’s joyously carnivalesque The Grand Budapest Hotel, Patrice Leconte finds the bright and beautiful in Zweig’s bittersweet world. It’s a gloriously old-fashioned, sweeping melodrama, but as a gutsy, heart-wrenching love affair, it’s a pale and broken promise.
A Promise is released on 1st August 2014 in the UK