'To Life' ('A la vie'): Locarno Review

A la vie Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno

A la vie Still - H 2014

An emotionally stolid but otherwise polished period piece

Julie Depardieu, Suzanne Clement and Johanna ter Steege star in Jean-Jacques Zilbermann's film that's inspired by his mother and her girlfriends

Three women who met in dire circumstances in Auschwitz try to enjoy a seaside holiday together some 15 years later in the candy-colored but otherwise rather stolid drama To Life (A la vie). Inspired by the lifelong friendships that the mother of French director Jean-Jacques Zilbermann formed in the camps, previously chronicled in the director's documentary Irene and Her Sisters, this polished fictional recreation lacks a vital spark of, well, life, despite its title (a translation of the Hebrew toast "l'chaim"). This sun-drenched take on the ways in which such traumatic experiences continue to influence the lives of those involved long after the fact does look unusual enough to help it get noticed beyond festivals and Jewish events. It premiered on the Piazza Grande in Locarno and will be released in France mid-November.

After an unnecessary prologue set at Auschwitz, during which the characters are covered in rags to protect themselves from the cold and it's not all that clear who's doing what and why, the film kicks off in immediate postwar Paris, where Helene (Julie Depardieu, daughter of Gerard Depardieu) is relieved to find that her family's apartment has remained sealed since they were hauled off mid-dinner several years earlier.

She tries to go back to "normal" after her harrowing experiences, finally marrying her much older childhood crush, Henri (Hippolyte Girardot), after earlier amorous advances from a client of her reestablished sewing atelier, Raymond (Mathias Mlekuz). After years of placing the same ad looking for a friend from Auschwitz in a Yiddish newspaper, Helene manages to organize a holiday at Berck-sur-Mer, on the Atlantic coast facing the U.K., where she finally gets to see Amsterdam-based Lili (Johanna Ter Steege) again.

As a surprise, Lili has taken along their mutual friend Rose (Suzanne Clement), from Montreal, whom they met at Auschwitz and whom Helene believed to be dead. But as soon as the two camp survivors get off the bus, it's clear that the peace-time reunion won't be all that easy, as Rose and Lili have been fighting for the duration of their trip because Lili wants to talk about Auschwitz, which is what binds them, and Rose refuses to.

The three women spend a few days together in the seaside apartment of Raymond's family, which gives Zilbermann the opportunity to paint a clearer portrait of these very different women as they go to beach, prepare food together and have to negotiate living with each other in close quarters. But Zilbermann, who wrote the screenplay with Daniel Dumas and an assist from Odile Barski, focuses more on what separates the women — i.e., anything that can generate mild conflict — than what unites them or makes them special as individuals.

Absent any real sense of who these three women are as individuals, most of their behavior is reduced to what feels like tics that are meant to illuminate character in a rather crude way, with Rose, for example, constantly splurging on clothes but reusing the same tea bag several times. The film's humor is also rather hit-or-miss and some of the jokes will be considered distasteful by some given the subject matter. When Lili closes the still rather thin Helene in her arms after not having seen her since their escape from the camp, she exclaims, with a wink: "you've gained weight," while Helene remarks how both she and Rose have married camp survivors and how this probably suggests they "have a thing for striped pajamas."

The look of the provincial seaside resort and the holiday mood of the tourists that surround the women on the beach are all very bright, with the early 1960s color schemes further emphasized by a color-correction job that could be qualified as extremely enthusiastic. Period re-creation is deliberately exaggerated, with vintage cars in every outdoor frame as far as the eye can see, as if to underline the limitlessness of luxury and insouciance of the time. But all this prosperity and abundance would only make sense if it stood in clearer contrast to the women's struggles to come to terms with their dark past. As it stands, it feels more like a cartoonish backdrop for an oddly stilted reunion of three women who probably wouldn’t want to see each other again every year after this first attempt at a holiday a trois (unlike their real-life counterparts).

Depardieu gives a sober performance that only really comes to life when her character starts chasing a young Club Mickey employee (Benjamin Wangermee, with an appropriate puppy-dog look) who's eager to have sex with her (something her husband can’t do since he was castrated in Auschwitz), while the shopping-addicted Clement, with huge (now vintage) sunglasses and ditto hair, seems to have been styled by Xavier Dolan, who directed the actress in films such as Laurence Anyways and the recent Mommy. Ter Steege (The Vanishing), as the proto-feminist with the voice of reason, has the most thankless role, though she acquits herself admirably, even if her French is a little wobbly at times.

Production companies: Elzevir Films, Le Pacte, France 3
Cast: Julie Depardieu, Johanna ter Steege, Suzanne Clement, Hippolyte Girardot, Benjamin Wangermee, Mathias Mlekuz
Director: Jean-Jacques Zilbermann
Screenwriters: Jean-Jacques Zilbermann, Daniel Dumas, Odile Barski
Producers: Denis Carot, Marie Masmonteil
Director of photography: Remy Chevrin
Production designer: Valerie Grall
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot
Editor: Joele van Effenterre
Sales: Le Pacte
No rating, 105 minutes