One Day You'll Understand opens Friday in select theaters
Veteran director Amos Gitai's One Day You'll Understand is about Victor, a middle-aged Parisian who is trying to find out from his mother Rivka what she and her parents experienced during the Holocaust, a question Rivka persistently evades.
With varying degrees of self-consciousness or guilt, most filmgoers have thought to themselves about some movie or other, "Oh great. Another Holocaust movie." But Gitai's film does not treat much of the Holocaust directly (in fact its weakest scene is the one that gets closest to portraying the atrocities). The best thing about One Day is the way it traces the relationships between Victor (Hippolyte Girardot), his wife Françoise (Emmanuelle Devos), and Rivka (Jeanne Moreau). Girardot is a terrific actor who sustains a state of being simultaneously perplexed and perceptive throughout the film in this quiet performance, much more restrained than the brilliant kookiness he's brought to films like Kings and Queen.
The ideas and questions contained in One Day speak directly to the reservations filmgoers—myself included—have about Holocaust movies. As A.O. Scott pointed out in a recent essay for The New York Times, the troublesome things about movies on this subject matter are that they often seem to feel insulated from criticism by virtue of their sensitive topic, offer catharsis or sentiment instead of a challenge, and there are just so damn many of them. But One Day You'll Understand is not just another Holocaust movie.
After the opening credits of One Day, the camera floats around a Paris apartment as we hear a woman testify at the trial of Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. The camera doesn't dwell on anything in particular until it notices Rivka and floats with her over to the television, as some detail of the trial has caught her attention. In fact, it seems she's gotten so distracted by the trial that she's forgotten about the vegetables she's roasting and lets them burn. So why is it that when Victor comes over and wants to discuss the trial, she keeps changing the subject?
That is the central question of One Day, one that I was glad to spend 90 minutes engaging with alongside Victor, who is letting the mystery seriously get to him. He's blowing off important people at work, and Françoise is worried for his mental health. The view from the constantly drifting camera is often obstructed (it goes behind walls so repeatedly that it starts to seem like a gag), thus paralleling Victor's blocked view of his mother's past.
The film suggests reasons for Rivka's silence, but thankfully never pretends to have any answers. Maybe Rivka won't talk to Victor about it because it's too painful, but she seems a strong enough woman to handle the conversation that Victor wants to have. It's more likely that Rivka is protecting Victor from it, or maybe she feels that she shouldn't tell him about it because there is no way to understand it. Rather than offer answers to the questions the film poses, Gitai uses the perfect final scenes to compound them. This makes for a better movie, one that invites inquisitiveness and interpretation; furthermore, it would be immoral to do otherwise. There are no answers for the horrific absurdities of the Holocaust, and the structure of Gitai's film mirrors the chain of multiplying difficulty that Victor's inquisitiveness sets off. We know that we must never forget, but One Day challenges us to realize a less tenable reality: that we might never understand.