Dir: Jean-Jacques Zilbermann. France. 2014. 104mins
Is the world ready for ‘Auschwitz-les-Bains’? The answer to this question may very well determine the future of Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s lightweight comedy To Life (À la vie) inspired to a great extent by the life of his mother Irene, and her two best friends, all three Auschwitz survivors who went on to celebrate the rest of their lives, despite the horrors haunting their past.
Zilbermann, who has already covered the story, or at least its basics, in a documentary Irene And Her Sisters, approaches the entire venture with the kind of simplified, commercial touch that prefers safe predictability to the risks of originality.
Dealing with the Holocaust and its after-effects remains a highly sensitive subject, considered by many too sanctified to touch in anything but the most respectful manner, not to mention those who insist that anything but a documentary treatment will not do justice to it. Zilbermann obviously holds a different opinion, and though he never allows the tragedy to be off-screen for any length of time, he takes it all in his stride, with a great deal of insouciance, delivering his story in a cheerful, positive but not particularly perceptive manner, which might amuse some but seriously offend others.
Hélène (Julie Depardieu), Lili (Johanna ter Steege) and Rose (Suzanne Clément), miraculously come out of Auschwitz alive, but for the next 15 years they ignore each other’s fates. Helene goes back to her Paris flat, to find it untouched, puts an advert in a Yiddish paper to find out about her friends and marries the man with whom she was in love before the war (Hippolyte Girardot), who had lost not only his wife and his child in the camps but also his manhood.
Fifteen years later, still a virgin but very much in love with her husband, Hélène finally discovers Lili, and they agree to meet at a popular beach resort, Berck-sur-mer. A divorcee writer, Lili leads a freewheeling, independent life, indifferent to the scandalised Dutch society around her. Rose, whom Lili had found and brought along with, lives in Montreal with a doting husband who adores her, and a couple of children she keeps on a short rein. The three of them set out to have a good time - on the beach and off it - despite the memories that keep niggling at each one of them in the background, often leading to good-natured arguments that are settled without a hitch.
Once Hélène, now in her mid-thirties, confesses her sexual innocence and how miserable she is because of it, the other two decide something must be done urgently to correct the situation. They gradually nudge her, despite her resistance, towards an equally innocent but much younger man. Once she does give in, there is no one happier than her to discover the delights of sin. Before parting, the girls decide they enjoyed themselves too much not to repeat it again and decide to come back every single year to celebrate life.
Zilbermann, who has already covered the story, or at least its basics, in a documentary Irene And Her Sisters, approaches the entire venture with the kind of simplified, commercial touch that prefers safe predictability to the risks of originality. The performances, particularly Depardieu and Clement, carry a touch of over-the-top preciosity, with Ter-Steege the one to keep a cool sensible head on her shoulders. As for Zilbermann, he doesn’t trust the camera to tell the story, relying on acting and dialogue (spiced with a few Yiddish words) for that purpose, while the choice of Jewish folk tunes he uses for the soundtrack almost automatic.
Though dark clouds do lurk frequently, it is never more than for a brief second, before some sunny occurrence comes up to chase them away. Placing the entire story in a period of time when optimism was still in fashion and Europe was reveling in its new state of well being helps to raise up the spirits and keep from going too deeply into the past.
Production company: Elzevir Films
International sales: Le Pacte, www.le-pacte.com
Producers: Denis Carot, Marie Masmonteil
Screenplay: Jean-Jacques Zilbermann, Daniele D’Antoni, Odile Barski
Cinematography: Remy Chevrin
Editor: Joelle Van Effenterre
Production designer: Valerie Grall
Main cast: Julie Depardieu, Johanna ter Steege, Suzanne Clément, Hippolyte Girardot