A rather queasy cross of conventional biodoc and first-person therapy cinema, “An Encounter With Simone Weil” has helmer Julia Haslett seeking solutions to her own problems by investigating the life of the titular French philosopher-activist. This gets particularly weird when Haslett hires an actress to “be” Weil, then goes one-on-one with the impersonator in a sort of role-play counseling session, all solemnly recorded by the camera. Personal filmmaking that’s maybe a little too personal, pic opens Friday on one Gotham screen but will quickly skew toward limited broadcast and educational exposure.
When her mentally ill father committed suicide, Haslett, then 17, came to feel acutely responsible for people in pain. “My father’s death taught me that if I don’t pay attention, someone might die,” she says, though she notes that she mostly feels powerless to turn compassion into preventative action, whether witnessing global atrocities that echo those in Weil’s lifetime or worrying over a brother mired in depression and anxiety.
Struck by the observations about injustice, self-sacrifice, protest and empathy in Weil’s enormous body of work (most published after her 1942 demise), Haslett visits sites where the philosopher lived, and interviews scholars and a handful of surviving acquaintances. Weil was many things: a committed lifelong virgin; a teacher who quit to work at a factory in solidarity with workers; a daughter of middle-class agnostic Jews who rejected creature comforts and eventually looked up Christian mysticism; a communist called “counterrevolutionary” by family friend Trotsky; a volunteer antifascist fighter in the Spanish Civil War, despite her physical frailty; and a person whose death may have been the result of self-imposed starvation.
One commentator here calls Weil “a bit obsessed with suffering,” and if Haslett is not in the same arguably masochistic league, she clearly shares some of the same highly personalized, guilt-driven humanitarian instincts. Perhaps a more impressionistic, essay-like film would have allowed her strange experiment — an attempt to bridge the gap between the dead and the living — to seem both more organic and more universal.
But “Encounter” alternates between straightforward talking-head/archival footage and navel-gazing subjectivity in a way that feels fundamentally awkward. It’s especially so when Haslett, who admits to getting carried away, bemoans Weil’s religious awakening as a personal betrayal, let alone that she does so during that improvised interview with Weil-channeling actress Soraya Broukhim. A tragedy that befalls Haslett during production would have been more devastating for viewers if the film had given up ghost-chasing and focused on the helmer’s own troubled family, an underexplored story that nonetheless is clearly the film’s true raison d’etre.
Assembly is competent.