An Encounter With Simone Weil: Film Review

This documentary about the French philospher and social activist doesn't quite bring its fascinating subject to life.

Filmmaker Julia Haslett lacks focus in her ode to the French philosopher.

Early in her documentary about Simone Weil, director Julia Haslett informs us that what attracted her to the French philosopher was this quotation from one of her writings: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” It’s too bad, then, that the filmmaker’s feature debut, An Encounter With Simone Weil, suffers from such a distracting lack of focus.

It’s safe to say that the majority of people are unfamiliar with Weil, but this film, rather than providing an in-depth study of her short life (1909-1943) and voluminous writings (she produced fifteen volumes, most of which were published posthumously) instead goes off on too many tangents.

Like far too many self-involved documentarians, Haslett frequently injects herself into the proceedings. She talks about her reactions to Weil’s writings as much as she does as the author herself, and deals at length with the emotional aftermath of her own father’s suicide and the subsequent crippling depression suffered by her older brother.

Equally disconcerting is her decision to employ an actress to portray Weil in a mock interview, a device that proves far more distancing than illuminating.

There’s certainly no shortage of fascinating points to be explored about Weil, whose writings were championed by Albert Camus after her death. Born to an affluent Jewish family, she fought in the Spanish Civil War, worked on an assembly line and championed for the rights of the poor and the disenfranchised. She eventually embraced Christian mysticism, and was a member of the French Resistance. When she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, she refused to eat anything more than the rations allotted to soldiers in occupied France, a position that contributed to her demise.

Various subjects are interviewed, including Weil’s 96-year-old cousin; one of her former students; and her niece, who, as Haslett accurately points out, bears an uncanny resemblance to Weil. Several philosophers and professors also comment in about her wide-ranging influence.

But despite the voluminous quotes from her writings that are offered, the subject herself remains frustratingly opaque. The film indeed offers an encounter with Simone Weil, but we never feel that we’ve truly come to know her.


Director/screenwriter/editor: Julia Haslett.

Producers: Fabrizia Galvagno, Enrico Rossini Cullen.

Executive producers: David Menschel, Adam Haslett.

Director of photography: Thomas Torres Cordova.

Music: Daniel Thomas Davis. 

No rating, 85 minutes.