Inside the little French tailor shop that's at the heart of Almost Peaceful, most of the employees have no problem with the occasional Holocaust joke. "Maurice Abramauschwitz," one employee says, punning on the name of a fellow they've just met. This shocks and upsets Andrée, who scolds her insensitive colleagues. "The French may not know," she tells them, motioning toward a window on the outside world, "but here at this workshop, surely you know."
Surely they do. For the inhabitants of this shop -- including Albert, the owner -- are Jewish, and Andrée, a pale dishwater blonde, is not. It's 1946, and post-war Parisian life has returned to normal. People work and dream, kids go off to summer camp and send drawings home to their parents, young men like Maurice Abramowitz seek work from Albert, and shop employees such as Charles live one day at a time, hoping against hope that their wives and children will return.
Michel Deville's Almost Peaceful begins with its charming side and slowly evolves into something even more rewarding, a drama steeped in a gentle sadness that pervades its characters' newly tranquil quotidian lives. On the one hand, there's the benignly nasty neighbor, a reminder of France's lingering anti-Semitism, who bangs on the door of Albert's shop. So Albert shouts down to him, "It was quieter before! Terrible, isn't it? You hear Jews now!" There's also the mother who, when she finds her young son testing his resistance to pain, gives him a slap and commands, "I forbid you to suffer."
Almost Perfect is a warm and leisurely drama, built around everyday conversations and anecdotes about how its characters survived and survive. Léon and his wife had a child during the Occupation -- the alternative, says Léon, was separate bedrooms -- and right after Sammy was born, his father joined the Resistance. Mme. Sarah, the embittered matchmaker, lost her husband because he refused to look less Jewish by shaving his beard.
None of these stories are new, but Almost Perfect feels unusually fresh and humane. Deville casts the Holocaust more as a manageable tragedy than as an obstacle to a satisfying life. He sprinkles his drama with several short passages of still photography, as if to preserve the serenity of a safer new world, and it's no surprise that his ending -- a bucolic picnic, rife with children in the brilliant sunlight -- promises a future of hope and joy. In a story that Andrée tells little Sammy, we learn that the human spirit, and not God, performs miracles. It's a maxim for survival in a world that keeps reminding us of its dark side. In French, with subtitles.