(France, 105 min.)
Dir. Jean-Jacques Zilberman, Writ. Danièle D’Antoni, Jean-Jacques Zilberman
Starring: Julie Depardieu, Johanna Ter Steege, Suzanne Clément, Hippolyte Giradot
Suzanne Clément toasts l’chaim! in the French post-war drama À la vie. Clément plays Rose, an Auschwitz survivor who returns to France from Montreal when her friend Hélène (Julie Depardieu) seeks out her friends from the camp. L’chaim, like À la vie, translates to the film’s English title To Life (although the film generally goes by its French title here) and the Mommy star/muse of the Xavier Dolan oeuvre is easily the life of this fine film about friends repairing wounds left by World War II.
Rose isn’t keen to expose these wounds, but Hélène eagerly years to reconnect with past friends to ease her mind. Hélène, as one man remarks in the days since she was freed, lost her youth to the camps. It’s true, she’ll never have her early years, but she does her best to move forward by marrying a childhood sweetheart. She admits she settled for security and convenience, though, for her husband (Hippolyte Giradot) is impotent due to Nazi experiments. She wants to celebrate life after coming so close to death, but the world suffocates her.
The bubbly Hélène, the ringleader of the getaway and lead character of the film, finds Rose and their stodgy campmate Lili (Johanna Ter Steege) following an extensive search and years of wondering. The three girls bask in the sun, laugh, and recall old times while learning to heal and grow up in the aftermath of trauma. Call it Romy and Michele’s Auschwitz Reunion, but without the Post-It Notes and a heavy element of sobriety.
A Romy and Michele joke might seem tasteless, but the relatively serious À la vie finds a moment of levity when Henri sparks a refreshing laugh in the film with a splash of Jewish humour. He recounts an anecdote about two Jews who meet. One says, “Hey, it’s me!” upon excitedly seeing a familiar face. The other can’t recall the man. The first man then gives a prompt, “It’s me… from Auschwitz?” The other man then has an a-ha moment and laughs, “Oh, AUSCHWITZ!”
Yes, Auschwitz was, for better or for worse (mostly worse), a meeting place of sorts. It’s disarming, then, that the reunion between Hélène, Rose, and Lili resembles three long lost friends coming together after years at school or happy times at summer camp. Life, somehow, moves on.
It’s not an easy move to make, as director/co-writer Jean-Jacques Zilberman peppers the film with everyday markers and reminders of how close these women came to death. Their Auschwitz tattoos, for example, don’t even need a line of dialogue to convey their significance as the black serials on the women’s forearms stand out on the sunny beaches, no matter how hard Rose seems to rub her skin as if to erase them. Other daily things, like reusing tea bags ad nausea or refusing to eat fresh bread until the day-old loaf is through, show three women who don’t take their existence for granted. They are forever set on survival mode from their days of foraging in the camps.
Like the aforementioned Romy and Michele, Hélène bears a case of arrested development. Depardieu plays her with rosy playfulness and naïveté. Hélène’s an unshakable optimist despite everything she’s been through and continues to experience. She giggles like a schoolgirl and leads the trio in Yiddish camp songs by the ocean. Rose doesn’t really join in the rounds of ditties, nor does she tolerate Hélène and Lili’s habit of discussing memories of the camps. Rose clearly bears the greatest emotional and psychological scars from her time at Auschwitz and the getaway at Berck Plage has a tangibly cathartic effect on her.
Rose, whom Hélène presumes to be dead when À la vie begins, easily has the most substance to her character as the film makes her reticence with the Holocaust an underlying conflict. She flat-out puts the subject as a no-fly zone. The change in Clément’s appearance is visible whenever someone mentions the camps, even as an oblique reference to contextualise their relationship. The reveal of Rose’s trauma ultimately forms the emotional core of the film as the three friends release their pains in one confrontational outpouring in which Rose finally confronts her past. The film gives Clément the only character with a substantial backstory and the actress uses it to her advantage to create the fullest and most dynamic woman of the trio. She holds the film together.
As Rose finally relieves herself of the weight of the past and as Hélène learns to grow up (Lili has little in the way of an arc), À la vie therapeutically depicts the choice to let go of the past. At its warmest and brightest, À la vie is an affirmation of life despite all odds.
À la vie opens Friday, May 20 in Toronto at the Canada Square and in Montreal at Cinema Cavendish from Unobstructed View, Inc.